‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ by Gail Honeyman
I chanced on a copy of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine in a charity shop a couple of weeks ago and found myself conflicted. I know you shouldn’t judge books by their covers, but everything about this one screamed ‘Move along now, there’s nothing to see here!’ The font; the front and centre quote “Funny, touching and unpredictable” (Jojo Moyes); the printed Costa prize winner ‘sticker’, and reviews on the back from The Daily Mail and Sunday Express collectively repelled me. And yet…… it would seem that everyone in the blogosphere has gone nuts for this book, so I was intrigued, and against my gut instinct, I parted with the cash.
To quote from the back cover:
Eleanor Oliphant leads a simple life. She wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day and buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend.
Eleanor Oliphant is happy. Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled existence. Except, sometimes, everything…
Of course, Eleanor Oliphant is anything but fine – it would make for a very boring book otherwise, and as the novel unfolds we begin to glimpse the fragility of Eleanor’s painstakingly constructed world. To be honest, while I was warming to the socially awkward Eleanor, I wasn’t loving the novel all that much, and wasn’t sure whether to carry on with it, until page 77 when I bonded with Eleanor in our shared revulsion of abhorrent music.
There is no such thing as Hell, of course, but if there was, then the soundtrack to the screaming, the pitchfork action and the infernal wailing of damned souls would be a looped medley of ‘show tunes’ drawn from the annals of musical theatre. The complete oeuvre of Lloyd Webber and Rice would be performed, without breaks, on a stage inside the fiery pit, and an audience of sinners would be forced to watch – and listen – for eternity. the very worst amongst them, the child molesters and the murderous dictators, would have to perform them.
I actually whooped and punched the air when I read that which I don’t often do, so decided that on that basis, I’d at least to commit to finishing it. I’m glad I did. As the novel is written in the first person, we glean fragments of information about Eleanor from other’s responses to her unorthodox behaviour, and this created many opportunities for comedy. This was balanced with the harrowing realisation that Eleanor’s past holds a dark secret, one which is so terrible she has had to block it out. She strikes up a friendship with Raymond who works in IT, and this becomes a lifeline for her, as in reality, outside of her working life, she is barely functioning.
There have been times when I felt that I might die of loneliness… When I feel like that, my head drops and my shoulders slump and I ache, I physically ache, for human contact… I don’t mean a lover – this recent madness aside, I had long since given up on any notion that another person might love me that way – but simply as a human being. The scalp massage at the hairdresser, the flu jab I had last winter – the only time I experience touch is from people whom I am paying, and they are almost always wearing disposable gloves at the time…These days, loneliness is the new cancer – a shameful, embarrassing thing, brought upon yourself in some obscure way. A fearful incurable thing, so horrifying that you dare not mention it; other people don’t want to hear the word spoken aloud for fear that they might too be afflicted, or that it might tempt fate into visiting a similar horror upon them.
I absolutely loved Eleanor as a character. I found her experience of loneliness heart-breaking and her courage facing the traumatic events from her early life really moving. However, I felt less convinced by the plot of the novel, especially the twist at the end (which I won’t spoil by revealing). So, am I glad I read it, after all? Yes, but I do have mixed feelings about the book as a whole.
Have you read it? What did you think?