Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
Pages: 325 (paperback)
Eleanor is completely fine. She adheres to an strict schedule–five days a week, she goes to work at her office. Over the weekend, she orders pizza, drinks vodka, and waits for the week to arrive. She doesn’t want or need any friends, or so she thinks. She isn’t good at social conventions anyway.
Then she runs into a local musician, who Eleanor just knows is “the one.” In order to prepare herself for this lifelong romance, she must go out into the world and prepare herself. She even begins to develop a friendship with her office’s IT guy, Raymond. As their friendship grows and she begins to open herself up to what the world has to offer, Eleanor will find that sometimes human connections make life much more than “fine.”
Sometimes when you see a book with a character advertised as “quirky” (or maybe it’s the book itself), the concern is whether the author is going to go over the top with the quirkiness. Oftentimes they do, and then the book is too wacky and/or unrelatable to be enjoyed. I have the same issue with most modern sitcoms and shows like…probably what I’d imagine Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt or most TBS sitcoms to be. But for other shows, like The Big Bang Theory, it can work. Sheldon Cooper does not behave normally, but he is always in character and other characters acknowledge that he’s a weirdo, grounding the show in realism. He also matures and grows over the course of 12 seasons. Supporting characters have personality and are funny, but are not over-the-top ridiculous. My point is that I like my “realistic” fiction novels and shows to at least be semi-realistic. Additionally, the scenarios have to make sense and can’t just be random wackiness. There is a difference between a fun book and poor, nonsensical writing (read: I’m gonna write about lots of ridiculous out-of-ordinary things because it’s FUN! Example: Alice in Wonderland was fine because it was new and is a classic, but Through the Looking Glass, to me, was just bad).
Fortunately, such is not the case with Eleanor Oliphant.
Eleanor is very much grounded in a real world, and characters aren’t too quirky to be believed. Eleanor is certainly a character, though. She’s very literal. She’s awkward and formal. She doesn’t understand all social conventions (and often for good reason). Readers should know going in that this is a character-driven book, meaning that it’s actually based more on Eleanor and her personality more than tons of events. And as with many people on the outskirts of society, many readers will probably find themselves agreeing with some of Eleanor’s commentary. She comments on everything from the ritual of writing one’s name on a Starbucks cup to why we have to say “fine” when someone asks how we’re doing to the ridiculousness of kitten heels (and why are heels considered feminine, anyway?). And many readers may relate to her in some way or another. As a young woman trying to get a full-time job and struggling to find friends where people my age aren’t common, loneliness like Eleanor’s may not be hard to come by.
What is also quirky are the numerous references to British literature. It’s been compared to Jane Eyre, but I’m not sure if that’s because of the plot or the many blatant–and I mean in your face– references to the novel. As an English major I thought that was a fun Easter egg, yet nobody is talking about them. And if you are a Jane Austen fan, you may figure out a secret of Eleanor’s past before other readers will.
Don’t get me wrong; there are still important plot points. Eleanor has a difficult relationship with her Mummy, which is part of the reasoning for her odd personality. Yet she still talks to Mummy every week because she has a lot to resolve. Yes, there is a missing father mention of course because Eleanor apparently does not have one. Again. Thankfully, Honeyman does not explore it further, focusing instead on Mummy. There is also a thrill in the mystery of the musician who is Eleanor’s crush. Will Eleanor ever actually meet him, and what will happen once she does? And let’s not forget her friendship with Raymond. I really liked how….
***INCOMING SPOILER ALERT; SKIP FOLLOWING PARAGRAPH IF YOU DON’T WISH TO SEE SPOILERS***
…their friendship was platonic. Just about any writer would rush to put them in a relationship and forget about the other interesting plot points of the book to accommodate it. Not the case here. Strangely, though, I was rooting for them! The book ultimately does not tell us whether they end up together, but leaves it as a possibility. Still, I’m really glad this book wasn’t cluttered with unnecessary romance because that could have happened easily, especially in an author’s first attempt.
Otherwise, this book reads like an “escapist novel.” It’s a bit more than that, though, because it delves into Eleanor’s traumatic childhood and the struggle of making friends. Although there was no one particular plot point (the book is split into two sections; the first one focusing on Eleanor’s daily struggles and new relationship and the second focusing on her struggle to free herself from Mummy), it spends a lot of time on Eleanor’s perspective. So many of the problems here are internal ones as Eleanor tries to figure out who she is, and it’s a fascinating character study. It doesn’t try to be preachy, but there were instances when I felt sad for Eleanor too, like when her coworkers suddenly started being nice to her because she started wearing nicer clothes.
Eleanor Oliphant is a great character, and her book is not only fun but inadvertently brings up questions of how we deal with loneliness and treat others who are different.
(Side note: if you were like me and didn’t like The Kiss Quotient, this is a much better alternative.) We may know awkward people, or encounter them in public, and get annoyed by their behavior. But if we enjoy and relate to Eleanor, why can’t we find compassion toward those people in real life too? It also succeeds in that Honeyman does not dive into cliches, despite having the opportunity to. I can’t find much to complain about here, other than the fact that it starts off somewhat slow. This was a great debut novel and I recommend it.