Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Opening sentence: “When people ask me what I do – taxi drivers, dental hygienists – I tell them I work in an office.”
Oh, Eleanor, Eleanor, Eleanor. Never before have I wanted so much to reach out and give the biggest hug to a character in a book. I’ve just finished reading this and, quite frankly, I feel a little bereft. But also so happy. Bereft at what Eleanor had to go through and bereft that I am no longer in her world, but such joy at the life-affirming nature of her story.
Eleanor Oliphant takes a very literal view of the world, speaks her mind, but most of all, is lonely. For most of her life, she is indeed the proverbial elephant in the room. In and out of foster care during her childhood due to a highly traumatic incident that left her physically and emotionally scarred, she has no family except for her sinister Mummy and has always struggled to make friends. Now 30 years old, she goes to work, eats, sleeps and at the weekend uses vodka to get through the endless hours by herself. This life of solitude means she is not socially attuned, but she is well aware of this and is completely fine with that. In the most British sense of the word possible.
Then two things happen to shake up her world. She develops a budding friendship with her colleague, Raymond, (after he encourages her to help an elderly gentleman, Sammy, who collapses on the street) and at the same time fixates on a local musician, who she decides is the man of her dreams and embarks on a little make-over to win his affections, as she puts it, “The goal, ultimately, was successful camouflage as a human woman.” You see, Eleanor is well aware that she is different from the norm, and it’s not that she wants to be like everyone else, but she still has feelings and realises she needs to make changes to combat her overpowering loneliness.
This is a story that celebrates finding your unique place in the world and the power of random acts of kindness. It’s a visceral, emotional read that made me feel simultaneously happy and sad. I mean, have you ever read such a heartbreaking sentence: “I took one of my hands in the other, tried to imagine what it would feel like if it was another person’s hand holding mine.” But at the same time it has glorious snippets scattered throughout that make you laugh out loud, like this: “Under the orange glow of a streetlight, a fox was drinking a cup of coffee. He wasn’t holding it in his paws – as has been clearly established, I’m not insane – but, rather, had dipped his head to the ground and was lapping from a Starbucks cup.”
When I near the end of a book, I like to read it in one sitting, but as I have two little boys, the opportunity to do that at home is limited. So this morning I went out for a coffee specifically to finish this book and it’s a measure of how engrossing it is that I effortlessly tuned out all the background coffee-shop noise and sat there with tears (a delicious mix of happy and sad tears) running down my face, without caring at all about the inquisitive looks from my fellow coffee-drinkers.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine has been touted as a must-read since its publication last year and I am sometimes dubious of books that come with so much hype, but in this case it is all richly deserved. Not only is it a wonderfully written debut novel, but Eleanor is one of the most interesting – and one of the most beautifully developed – characters that I’ve had the pleasure to encounter (side note: in recent times I have read two other books with echoes of her – Susan Green in The Cactus and Milly from Good Me Bad Me.)
A little kindness really can save lives is the message I took from this, it is a novel that got right into my core and left me with so much compassion for this wonderful woman. If you haven’t met Eleanor Oliphant yet, get this book on your TBR list. You won’t regret it.