book review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

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ELEANOR OLIPHANT IS COMPLETELY FINE by Gail Honeyman
★★★☆☆
Viking, 2017

I’m very conflicted about Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, and I think that’s largely because the context in which you read a book can be a significant factor in the relationship you end up having with it (at least for me). I first heard of this book when it was one of Book of the Month’s options for December, and when I think about Book of the Month, I usually think: commercial, will appeal to a wide audience, best-seller potential (lest I come across as a literary snob, these aren’t bad things! I love Book of the Month.) Anyway, I think if I’d have read this then, I may have been more forgiving. But reading it as a part of the Women’s Prize longlist, I had other elements in mind: is this book going to be ‘literary,’ does it have a strong artistic vision, does it break barriers and push the envelope and give us something truly original? Reading it in this context, I found it hard not to be slightly more critical.

This book has two real strengths for me – the examination of the importance of friendship, trite as it may sound, is actually incredibly touching, and Eleanor’s narrative voice is fresh and unique. Eleanor’s budding friendship with Raymond was a huge strength; I found their interactions to be genuine and rather heartwarming. And Honeyman’s prose is excellent, it’s smart and witty, and Eleanor herself is particularly noteworthy for how unlikable she is (you guys know this is something I love). This isn’t a manic pixie dream girl situation where a protagonist waxes lyrical about how shy and awkward and ‘different’ they are, but the most alternative thing about them is that they have brown hair. Eleanor is authentically an outcast, and the fact that she’s gone her whole life without any friends is a fact which is absolutely supported by her behavior throughout the book.

However. There were certain elements that didn’t work for me: namely, Eleanor’s character development over the span of this novel (which takes place over the course of a few months) to me felt hackneyed and unrealistic. When she and her coworker Raymond help and elderly man who’s fallen over in the street, this sets into motion a chain of events for Eleanor, and suddenly she finds herself in unprecedented social situations: going to bars and parties and other people’s houses. I think the problem for me is that there’s an emotionally manipulative undercurrent here – it’s constantly shoved in the reader’s faces how alien these experiences are to Eleanor, which for me at least left little room for my own emotional reaction, when I was being told exactly what to think. I don’t necessarily object to this novel’s treatment of trauma, but I do think it was somewhat lazy the way every single one of Eleanor’s idiosyncrasies were narratively pardoned by this traumatic event in her past, and how, with the introduction of Raymond into her life, she’s not only willing to quickly uproot so many of her routines which had been firmly in place for years as coping mechanisms, but also confront her past in a way she never had before. It was just too much too soon.

For the most part I enjoyed the humor in this novel, but there were so many moments which felt like they were being played for cheap laughs and didn’t ring true for me. I get that Eleanor has had a very difficult and unconventional life, but am I really supposed to believe that a thirty-year-old woman who’s lived her entire life in the UK doesn’t know what McDonald’s is, or refuses to give her name to a Starbucks employee because she thinks it’s a breach of her privacy, or doesn’t recognize a high-five? There were a lot of moments like this which I felt sort of compromised the realism of Eleanor’s character, which is a shame, as she is someone that I believe a lot of readers will be able to relate to.

Who knows what I’m trying to say. I liked this and I didn’t. I get the hype and I don’t. Maybe I read this at the wrong time, or maybe I’m just the wrong reader for it. Who knows. I’m being critical, because I didn’t love this book, but I actually did enjoy reading it and got through it rather quickly. I’ve just got too many nagging criticisms, and I don’t think this will stay with me in any sort of significant way.

39 thoughts on “book review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

  1. I definitely wouldn’t think of this as “literary” fiction; it reads as way more commercial to me. That it was on the Women’s Prize longlist comes as a bit of a surprise, though I suppose I can see why.

    I do agree with your two main grips, namely that Eleanor changes too fast and that some aspects of her personality strain credulity seemingly for comic relief. I think I just kind of made myself look past that because I liked other aspects of the book more, but if I were an editor those were some things I might have questioned.

    Some reviewers have questioned whether Eleanor is meant to be on the autism spectrum. But I don’t know enough about autism to speak to that, and since it’s never explicitly stated by the author, I don’t know that I would want to start making guesses since the book seems to want to insinuate that Eleanor is the way she is solely due to trauma.

    Liked by 1 person

    • omg I think I meant to write “gripes” but why am I even using that word??? just pretend i said “issues” or something.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I think that was exactly my problem – that it was being sold to me as literary fiction when that ended up not being the reality at all. And I mean, you know me, I’ll read just about anything, it’s not like I only read literary fiction, but I also think mismanaged expectations can play a huge role in the experiences I have with books. I think its spot on the women’s prize longlist hurt it in this regard, at least for me – what’s the point in getting your book more exposure with literary prizes if you’re selling it under false pretenses? If your book is commercial, there’s nothing wrong with owning that and marketing to that demographic.

      The autism element is something I didn’t want to really get into in my review since I’m not an #ownvoices reader in this regard, but I did find it interesting and something of a letdown in this regard, that so many of Eleanor’s traits are characteristic of autism, but then we’re told actually, no, it’s just her traumatic past. I really have no problem with the way trauma itself was handled in this narrative, but I’m also just like… why can’t she also have autism? Why can’t that be addressed more explicitly? I don’t know – I’d really be interested to hear Honeyman discuss this.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve been so on the fence about whether to read this or not, basically for all the reasons you mentioned. I can’t help but suspect it has an inevitable outcome, and can’t shake the feeling that I’ll find it distinctly ‘meh’ at best.

    But then so many people rave about it that I feel bad for prejudging it…

    Liked by 1 person

    • If you ended up loving this, I would honestly be floored. But that’s not to say that it’s completely worthless or that you shouldn’t give it a shot… I DID find it engaging and thought-provoking and I think you would agree. I think even without being longlisted for the women’s prize I would have read this as I had such a sense of FOMO about it, so even though it confirmed certain suspicions I’d had, I certainly don’t regret reading it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It was exactly the same for me. I find that I’m powerless to resist in these situations, because I always think ‘what if this is the exception to my usual tastes!!’ In this case, it was not. But if you’re tempted, it is a VERY quick read!

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  3. Great review! I did read this book when it was one of Book of the Month’s choices and I liked it a lot at the time– but I do agree with your thoughts here. I appreciated Eleanor’s character and voice but the “betterment” plot did seem very fictionalized and constructed to fit within the frame of the novel, which took out a lot of the realistic feel for me. I wanted to rate it highly because I had a good time reading it, but it didn’t quite live up to my expectations based on its premise.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s exactly how I feel tbh. I can be a bit hypocritical in the logic behind my reviews – just yesterday I rounded up a 3.5 stars because the enjoyability factory prevailed, and here I’m rounding down because I felt like being more critical. Oh well, I guess this is all subjective anyway.

      I completely agree about the betterment plot – the trajectory of Eleanor’s character was just so obvious and spelled out from the very first page, and sort of lacking in the messiness of real life.

      Anyway, it’s frustrating because there were so many elements of this book that were SO GOOD and if it had just been ever so slightly different I could have adored it.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I figured you’d sit in the middle with your opinion.
    Your review is excellent as ever but confirmed my suspicions about the rest of the book. I think, listening to the audiobook was what did it in for me. f I had read it I am sure I would not have minded Eleanor as much as I did while I tried listening. Maybe I’ll pick up a papercopy of this at some point. But probably not. It just isn’t enough of my type of book I think and the writing then isn’t quite strong enough.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Aside from the whole literary/commercial dichotomy complicating my feelings on this, another facet of my personality is that I tend to be very, very diplomatic, and when I see so many positive reviews and so many negative reviews before I read something, I’m practically bending over backwards to understand both sides as I read. This is why I shouldn’t read these big hype books months and months after everyone else. The 3 stars are an inevitability.

      I can only imagine this would be insufferable as an audiobook. One of its HUGE redeeming factors for me was how quick of a read it was. If I had had to sit through Eleanor’s narration for 10 or however many hours, I’d probably want to kill her.

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      • I know what you mean – especially because this book was everywhere. And everybody had opinions on it. The hype got to me here – I had NO intention of reading it and then I needed to know what the hype was about. It is SO not my type of book though.

        I could not deal with the audio. Beautiful Scottisch accent regardless. I really should stick with non-fiction for my audio. (Although there is a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories read by Stephen Fry that has just been smiling at me)

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      • I wish I were someone who could rise above the hype, but the curiosity always gets the best of me.

        I’m still trying to work out my relationship with audiobooks and what works best for me. I think I’m with you in mostly preferring nonfiction, but I did have a great experience listening to a thriller earlier this month. And then there are those narrators who are so tempting, regardless of what they’re reading. Sherlock Holmes read by Stephen Fry sounds DELIGHTFUL. I also got Frankenstein read by Dan Stevens from audible because I adore his voice and I’ve been meaning to re-read that, but I’m not sure audio is the best way to experience that story… ugh, so many factors.

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      • Stephen Fry also gives short introductions to the stories and what they mean to him. So it even has a non-fiction part. Plus, it’s 72 hours long and that really feels like getting something for my subscription fee. I haven’t read ANY Sherlock Holmes yet which I obviously need to remedy. But first I need to finish It by Stephen King and that will take forever.

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      • That sounds delightful! I haven’t read any Sherlock Holmes yet either, embarrassingly. And I also haven’t read any Stephen King. Are you liking It? I’m so turned off by the length.

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      • It’s surprisingly good – but definitely too long. King has a brilliant way with creating his characters and his world – but sometimes this gets away from him and then it gets a bit longwinded. The audiobook is great though.

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  5. Excellent review! Your issues with the novel were very well-articulated. I heard something about Eleanor having traits of Asperger’s Syndrome- does the book ever officially diagnose her?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much! That’s something I was thinking about as I was reading, I was fairly confident that Eleanor was somewhere on the spectrum and that it would be addressed later on, but it never is. Basically, all of Eleanor’s idiosyncrasies boil down to ‘she’s the way she is because of her traumatic past’ which didn’t fully add up… (With the caveat that I’m not a doctor) to me Eleanor’s behavior seemed more consistent with autism than PTSD, but I’m also wondering why she couldn’t have had both? I feel like Honeyman opened the door for speculations on Eleanor potentially having autism or Asperger’s but then it was never addressed in the narrative, which didn’t quite sit right with me.

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      • I probably have Asperger’s Syndrome, so these kinds of things are interesting to me. It sounds like you have very mixed feelings about this novel, would you say you would recommend it to a friend?

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      • If you do end up reading it, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it from the perspective of someone who has Asperger’s – I’m sure you could shed much more light onto this than I can.

        Mixed feelings indeed! This sounds like such a cop-out but honestly, it depends on the friend. I’d recommend it to someone who: enjoys unlikable characters, doesn’t mind when books and character development have a sort of predictable trajectory, enjoys heartwarming stories. But if someone is on the fence about picking it up, I’d say they go for it as it’s such a quick read and not a major time commitment.

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  6. Great review!
    I’d find the mcd and high five thing quite unbelievable too… generally i hear mostly nice things about this book tho, so i might try it eventually but these things you highlighted are defo a setback…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! There were certain elements of Eleanor being a social outcast that I found quite believable, but then there are also lines like ‘I raised my hand to his in a gesture I now recognized as a ‘high-five” that just stretch suspension of disbelief past breaking point. (Not an exact quote but pretty close.) Anyway, maybe you’ll have better luck with it with slightly lowered expectations?

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  7. Nice review! I find it also unrealistic the fact that she doesn’t know what Mcdonalds is and I find really stupid the fact of not giving her name, but I guess there are people like that… right? I have seen videos but I am sure they are “jokes” haha I have seen the title so many times in the library and in Amazon and I have given it a thought but never read the synopsis, but it does not seem the kind of book that I will read XD

    Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I AGREE WITH THIS and love how critical your review is, especially the trauma part, which kind of confused me a little sometimes because I wasn’t sure if it was actually supposed to be believable?? But I think I was willing to let this book slide a bit with the humor, even if it was a bit over the top sometimes. I loved her unappealing descriptions of Raymond, lol.

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    • VERY fair tbh, I was honestly very tempted by 4 stars because it was such a pleasant read but then I was like……… nah I’m gonna be critical lol. Yeah I just was not fully satisfied with the explanation for Eleanor’s behavior?? It seemed more consistent with autism than PTSD for me and I felt like Honeyman sort of… presented autism as an option but then dismissed it without really examining it?? Which is a shame because there’s a lot more she could have done there. But YES her descriptions of Raymond gave me such joy omg.

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  9. I haven’t read through all the comments so someone has quite possibly said this already, but re: the autism-spectrum possibility: one of my biggest issues with this book is that Honeyman seems to be *conflating* autistic-spectrum behaviour with PTSD/trauma-induced behaviour. They’re not the same thing and they often present in very different ways, yet she seems to be giving Eleanor traits from both, which is at best a stretch of our belief, and at worst, lazy and dangerous.

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    • Yes, absolutely. This was a big issue for me as well. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Eleanor having autism AND PTSD, but since autism is never really addressed, I felt like Honeyman relied on a lot of autism-specific traits and then said ‘wait just kidding, that was never really a possibility,’ which rubbed me the wrong way. I don’t usually look into authors talking about their books, but I’m genuinely very curious to see whether Honeyman has spoken about this…

      Like

      • Also, a lot of the chat surrounding the book is about how it tackles loneliness, which it…doesn’t. Social ineptitude, yes, but loneliness, which can befall anyone, even the extroverted and apparently capable? Not so much.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, agreed! I was really excited about a book which explored loneliness and isolation in the age of social media, that’s something I can really connect with, but I didn’t find that here at all. Yes, Eleanor was lonely, but it was a symptom of so many larger things in her life. Even her social awkwardness was taken to such an extreme it was hard to connect with.

        Liked by 1 person

    • I definitely went in with too high expectations as well. And I agree with a lot of the points you brought up in your review, about these little things that don’t quite add up with Eleanor’s character. You’re right, how can she be so good at cryptic crosswords and still encounter really simple things every day that she hasn’t heard of? It breaks the reader’s suspension of disbelief.

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