Book review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
PUBLISHED: 13:06 29 January 2019 | UPDATED: 13:29 29 January 2019
Eleanor doesn't live, she merely exists. As she emerges from her hermetic shell, confronts her painful past and tries to change her orderly ways, will she be able to open up and let the outside world in? Emily Cotton isn't sure.
Gail Honeyman is an example to all aspiring writers, showing first hand that it’s never too late to start writing. Writing Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine in her spare time lead Gail to enter a writing competition in her 40s; and from this her debut novel was discovered.
Since its publication, this story of isolation and loneliness in a modern world has already won the Costa First Novel, been translated into multiple languages, and had the film rights to it bought by the one and only Reese Witherspoon. However, to me, seems almost of a triumph of great marketing rather than great material.
Despite the title of the book, Eleanor Oliphant is not ‘completely fine’. She’s far from it. Eleanor doesn’t have a life, she has an existence – one that is small, routine and completely empty. She works all week, goes home on a Friday night, heats up a Tesco pizza, drinks two bottles of vodka - yes, two bottles! - and speaks to nobody until Monday morning comes round again.
There are many reasons for Eleanor’s isolation, all of which are gradually unpicked as the novel unfolds. Abuse, loss and death however are foremost in Eleanor’s past – which she is continually forced to confront during weekly phone conversations with a ghastly character, her incarcerated ‘Mummy’.
But soon, when she takes a tiny step outside of her comfort zone, everything starts to change. She develops a crush on a pop star which leads her to change her appearance to resemble “a human woman” to get his attention, and then rushes to the aid of an old man who has collapsed in the street, and in turn is befriended by a work colleague Raymond. Only as a result of all this, does she begin to understand how the world works, how to fit in and how to reach out to others.
If you enjoy reading for readings sake, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is a good book. But there were a few factors that I couldn’t quite get my head around. The most prominent being that, even though Eleanor avoids social interaction at all costs and is a creature of habit, it doesn’t make sense that she’s entirely ignorant to modern society and pop culture. For example, readers are asked to believe that a 30 year old woman, who has attended university and who regularly reads the newspaper, listens to the radio and watches television, hasn’t heard of McDonalds.
We’re also asked to get on board with the idea that an intelligent, grown woman seriously believes a bit of a makeover is all it will take for her to win the heart of a band member she’s never met. I’m convinced even a pre-teen with a crush would be able to see this would only ever be a fantasy. Even though some of her actions throughout show that she literally doesn’t understand what people mean sometimes or why they act the way they do, in my mind, it’s not that Eleanor can’t comprehend social norms, but more she chooses to reject them.
Oh, and there is a twist at the end too, which seems annoyingly de rigueur these days... I won’t reveal any spoilers, but what I will say is that was unnecessary. Protagonist Eleanor was a difficult character to believe in at numerous points during the novel, and for me, the ending poses more unanswered questions.