ELEANOR OLIPHANT IS COMPLETELY FINE by Gail Honeyman
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.