Book review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

5/5 stars.

After having finished the free sample portion of the Kindle edition I was still in doubt about this book. It seemed like exactly my kind of book, yet I hadn’t really connected with it at this point. I couldn’t quite get a beat on Eleanor. She was definitely socially inept in a sort of comical way, but was she smart, did she care about anyone, what – in essence – was her deal? Ultimately I decided to buy the book because of the outstanding reviews – and as you may have gathered, I was not sorry.

All this to say that if you start this and have your doubts I would strongly recommend that you persevere. At about 20% I was hooked, at 40% I was totally in love with Eleanor and her story – as well as her very blunt and very logical approach to (most things in) life. I sat in the garden cackling (as J likes to say I do when I’m laughing and really enjoying myself) at her actions and words and wishing I could be more like Eleanor. The thing is of course that Eleanor doesn’t realise that it’s considered rude or “not done” to say some of the things she does, like when she declines the offer of a drink from a guy because then she’d be obligated to buy him one in return and she has no desire to spend two drinks worth of time with him. I on the other hand am perfectly aware of the social unacceptability of saying such things and would therefore feel too much shame or embarrassment to be so outspoken, though there’s something very liberating about the idea.

Eleanor is a severely damaged woman who refuses to deal with the trauma of her past. She has created a life of routine for herself, where she goes to work, has the same meal every day, and on the weekends buys enough vodka to keep her semi-drunk – enough so she is able to keep the intrusive thoughts about the past at bay even when she doesn’t have work to distract her. She doesn’t socialise, she doesn’t have friends, she doesn’t do anything besides go to work and get the occasional scheduled visit from social services. Until one day something happens to break her routine, and she suddenly finds herself in unfamiliar territory. She even starts to develop a friendship of sorts, and after a while finds that she is actually capable of caring for others and indeed finds joy in helping others and developing friendships. She’s still awkward as all hell, but people mostly seem to realise that her intentions are good.

We learn that Eleanor has spent much of her life in foster homes, after a fire – the details of which are only revealed towards the end of the book, as Eleanor herself has repressed most of the memories. She has a weekly call with Mummy, who is an absolutely chilling character. Mummy is a narcissistic sociopath who seems to thrive on putting Eleanor down. But it’s only after Eleanor starts to dare to go out in the world and forge new bonds with people that she has the strength to try and stand up to Mummy and to consider letting her go.

I think my problem at the beginning of the book was that while the things that Eleanor said and did were certainly funny, I didn’t want to laugh at her, I wanted to connect with her and understand what lay beneath. Once this happened everything sort of fell into place. I still laughed at some of her thoughts and actions, but it was from a place of understanding and warmth. Eleanor is extremely vulnerable and I found myself really caring for her and wanting to protect her.

It gets pretty dark for a while, when Eleanor has a breakdown as a reaction to all the new things going on in her life and starting to come to terms with her past. But because it’s written form Eleanor’s point of view and she is not the emotional type, we sort of see the situation at a bit of a remove. I feel this works well, as I can still engage with the story but it doesn’t drag me down.

And it does have a hopeful ending.

Eleanor gradually wormed her way into my heart and mind, and I’m sure she’ll stay there for a while. This is a sad and chilling tale, it’s very well written, has lots of humour and warmth and I would say is overall a feel-good story. So I was right, it’s exactly my kind of book.

 

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