This is the second time I have read ‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ by Gail Honeyman. The first time I read it during the summer of 2018, the first time I came to England. What I remember more from that reading is my amazement of the sheer size of Waterstones in Nottingham as that was the first time I have seen a bookstore that big. Still, Honeyman’s debut (and so far only) novel was a pleasant read, despite its themes. The reason for re-reading the novel is my joining the book club on Meetup and this was the novel assigned. This review is undoubtedly and unavoidably influenced by the book club members and their opinions. Hearing other people’s opinions about this book has pointed out to me some faults that I probably would not have noticed it. Finally, I did enjoy reading this book and I was quite excited I had the chance to read it again and discuss it with other people.
Eleanor Oliphant is both the main character and the narrator in this novel. She is quite dead pan and always says what is on her mind. Eleanor is also rather educated and articulate, which also influenced the way she perceives events and people around her, as she can be very critical and dismissive of other people. Her lack of social filter can also cause her some unintentionally funny situations, especially when she decides to treat herself to any sort of luxury. However, as much as her life is controlled by self imposed schedules and routines, from the way she describes her life, it is also clear that she is quite lonely and desperate to fill in every second of her life that she has to spend alone. I really appreciated the slow and gradual reveal of her past and the horrific abuse she suffered that shaped her personality. At times, her description of events can be quite tedious and frankly, even annoying, but for me it was interesting to observe the world through the eyes of someone who is quite different from myself. Still, doing so and connecting with her made reading the second part of the novel that much more heart-breaking. Without revealing too much, the ending of this novel left me hopeful for Eleanor and for people suffering like her.
As a character, I found her to be rather well developed, albeit unusual and without any social cues. The trauma that she has suffered still haunts her and influences her daily life, but I really appreciated that at the end and with help of people around her, she made the steps towards recovery. While I can understand a lot of criticism in gauging how believable Eleanor is as a character, such as inconsistencies in what she knows and understand and what she does not, I did not dwelve too much into that. For me, Eleanor represented any person you see on the street that might be carrying deep seated trauma within them, sending a clear message of need for empathy and human connection. The big reveal of her story came as a rather big surprise to me the first time I read the book and I was not completely sure how to feel about it. On the second reading, parts of the big plot twist felt quite logical and realistic, while there were a couple of details I could still not accept it. The comment section is not spoiler free (unlike this review) so feel free to leave your opinions about the plot twist. What did you think about it? Did it work for you?
However, other characters in the novel fade in comparisson to Eleanor for me. They fall under various tropes and are not given the chance to develop. Still, I am allowing Honeyman the benefit of the doubt that this was intentional, as a way to show Eleanor’s point of view of them. Raymond is a goofy, unkept IT guy from work that becomes Eleanor’s friend. As one of the people from the book club pointed out, it seems like their friendship was about Raymond being a great friend to Eleanor and not vice versa. This could be the result of limited point of view, as that is what it is important to her-Raymond’s help. Other characters felt like conventiently placed snakes and ladders for Eleanor to learn something about herself. While they were there, I enjoyed reading about them, but I found myself wanting more of them. At the end of the day, though, this is the novel about Eleanor Oliphant and her journey, so this was really not the biggest complaint for me.
In terms of themes, when I bought this novel, I was under the impression that the main theme is that of loneliness of modern people. In fact, in the interview with the author, she explained that the inspiration for Eleanor was an interview with a professional woman who was so lonely that she would spend weekends not talking to anyone. This theme of loneliness and overcoming it is undoubtedly present in the novel but there is also variety of other themes, such as mental health, human connection, social interactions, trauma and even expectations for women. Although this is not exactly the book I initially expected, I appreciated the extension of the themes. In her attempts to attract a man she becomes obssesed with, she embarks on a mission of changing her appearance. Her reading into the messages sent to women about ideal appearance by mainstream reveals how contradictory and arbitrary these ideals are. It is revealed not only to Eleanor, but to the readers as well. What did you think about this theme? Do you agree with me?
With all of that being said, handling of theme of mental health and therapy is where my biggest criticism of the novel lies. Eleanor’s recovery from the horrible trauma that haunted her and shaped her life for years was presented as being solved in a couple of sessions, making big breakthroughs every time she sees her therapist. While I believe that representation of seeking therapy and getting better through it can be incredibly impactful, it is also something that has to be approached carefully. Showing that any serious mental health problems can be solved so fast can potentially cause a lot of issues for real life readers struggling with mental health, making them feel bad about their road to recovery. Although I cannot speak from personal experience, as I have never been to therapy, this quick resolution did not sit right with me and I believe that it was a serious mishandling of the serious problem.
At the end, I must say that I did enjoy this book. Despite the heavy themes that were tackled in it, it was an enjoyable experience to read about a rather interesting and engaging character such as Eleanor. Gail Honeyman’s debut novel certainly has its faults, but overall I think that the fact this novel went mainstream opened the door for discussion about serious topics from it. At the end, I found the information that Reese Witherspoon’s production company optioned the films rights. Given how much I liked her two other works based on books based on female written books (Big Little Lies and Little Fires Everywhere) I am looking forward to this as well.
As usual, I would love to hear your thoughts. Do you agree with me about the positive and negative parts of the novel? Tell me if I have missed something important.