A new #LooksAtBooks post? How long has it been? This segment suffered over summer, when I was mostly reading trash that I didn’t want to admit to, but we’re back with a review of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.
This recent release proved popular online, with many readers praising its heart-warming portrayal of personal growth and sharp insights into modern loneliness and isolation.
My phone doesn’t ring often—it makes me jump when it does—and it’s usually people asking if I’ve been mis-sold Payment Protection Insurance. I whisper ‘I know where you live to them,’ and hang up the phone very, very gently.
There are moments of inspired phrasing and a refreshing matter-of-factness to prop this story up, but generally speaking, I wasn’t sold on it. Perhaps I was expecting something different, but I wasn’t entirely convinced by many of the characters, and found the protagonist more irritating than charmingly quirky… more thoughts below.
One of the big positives of this novel is the fact that it is so very British. The author, Gail Honeyman, is based in the UK and puts together a convincing but romanticised view of office life, Tesco Express, and shoddy public transport. The familiarity of the settings makes for a pleasant backdrop and adds a much-needed sense of realism to the novel.
The familiar setting and gentle language is an ineffective balm, however, to much of this book. The opening half of the novel drags by with an odd blend of mundane depictions of office work and lonely flats, and intermittent vicious commentary from the protagonist. Eleanor Oliphant’s ‘thing’ is social awkwardness and an open, sometimes aggressive, unwillingness to communicate with other people unless necessary. She works as the sole finance officer for a large graphic design company, allowing her a certain measure of solitude, but somehow manages to speak only to colleagues when necessary, to a newsagent on Fridays, and her mother via weekly phone call. She abjectly refuses to connect with the world around her and is dismissive of societal norms.
“Janey was planning a short engagement, she’d simpered, and so, of course, the inevitable collection for the wedding present would soon follow. Of all the compulsory financial contributions, that is the one that irks me most. Two people wander around John Lewis picking out lovely items for themselves, and then they make other people pay for them. It’s bare-faced effrontery. They choose things like plates, bowls and cutlery-I mean, what are they doing at the moment: shoveling food from packets into their mouths with their bare hands?”
Eleanor Oliphant is quirky and introverted to an unbelievable degree; a fusty refusal to get involved with break room chatter is one thing, but being unaware of the difference between mobile phones and computers is a step too far. The author sells Eleanor as a foppish, out-of-touch woman with high standards and a debilitating aloofness, but presumably she attended university sometime in the 2000s? She reads The Telegraph cover to cover every day and has enough cultural knowledge to complete the crossword, but has never heard of social media?
The implausibility of her ‘quirks’ grated on me throughout, but the real problems arrive late in the book, when the plot starts to move. There is a touching portrayal of Eleanor’s tragic childhood, and the ‘twist’ ending is predictable but genuinely sad. The book’s depiction of therapy sessions and the difficulty of addressing mental health problems in one’s self is well portrayed and benefits from the ‘voicey’ narration. Her abusive childhood could very believably lead to a consciously sheltered adult life, and forms a cohesive core to the character. The ‘quirks’ and haughty language layer an unbelievable mask over the top.
The novel’s main plot is driven by Eleanor’s misadventures in moving out of her comfort zones in day-to-day life. She begins a tentative friendship with Raymond, the IT guy at work, makes more of an effort in her job, and eventually cuts down on the heavy drinking she had been doing at weekends. Towards the close of the book she ‘cuts ties’ with her abusive mother and attends therapy. However, this positive personal growth is overshadowed by Eleanor’s amazing fix-it visit to the hairdressers and the transformative power of begrudgingly buying heeled shoes.
“You’ve made me shiny, Laura,” I said. I tried to stop it, but a little tear ran down the side of my nose. I wiped it away with the back of my hand before it could dampen the ends of my new hair. “Thank you for making me shiny.”
Of course lots of people are cheered up by making an effort with their appearance, but these segments feel more like a big sticky-note from the author, who needed to point out when Eleanor’s personal growth was happening, just in case you missed it.
This could have been a really touching story about a lonely but interesting young woman struggling with the detached nature of modern life. It could have been a fascinating and moving portrayal of mental health problems that have gone long ignored. It could even have been a charming Eleanor-Gets-Her-Life-Together tale, a little bit Bridget Jones, or a more admin-based Legally Blonde. Instead, we get bits of everything; social awkwardness, mental health, British lifestyle and office culture, millennial isolation, all wrapped up in an unconvincing romance, with the gaps filled in by that endless stream of quirks.
Did I get this wrong? If you loved Eleanor Oliphant, leave me a comment below or hit the TSP social media (Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter). If there’s a book you want to see reviewed, name it and I’ll get round to it soon.