During the penultimate weekend of March, I found myself in a well-known bookshop with my other half. I picked up a copy of Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine and gave a sigh so deep and heartfelt that my partner snatched the book from my hands and headed straight towards the till. The deep and heartfelt sigh was entirely unjustified at the time, though, because I knew absolutely nothing about Eleanor Oliphant. I knew that the novel was critically acclaimed, I also knew that many book bloggers and Instagrammers who I follow had read and loved the book – but I knew nothing about it, its protagonist, or indeed this protagonist’s story.
Nevertheless, I was bought the book and I set about reading it a day or two later. This is the part where the spoilers are likely to sneak in so advert your eyes – and skip a paragraph ahead – if you’re looking to avoid surprises about the plot. Eleanor is a young woman – thirty years old, if memory serves right, and she lives in social housing. After a tragic childhood, that saw her own mother start a house fire just to try and get rid of Eleanor – and Eleanor’s sister, we later find out – Eleanor has lived a life that sees her keep herself to herself. She has a weekly routine that she sticks too regimentally, including her nine to five office job that she has had for a total of nine years – since leaving university, that is – and she doesn’t tend to deviate much from her day to day life, ever. Eleanor has indeed spent much of her adult life very much alone – and that’s completely fine.
Until she meets Raymond – and that’s as much as you’ll get from me in terms of the plot!
The reason that I’ve been driven to write about Eleanor Oliphant, over and above the other heroines I encounter on a book by book basis, such is the bias of my reading, is because there’s something different about Eleanor. She is socially under-developed, exceptionally awkward around new people – nay, all people, in fact – and you never know what’s going to come out of her mouth next, to the point that her dialogue is occasionally cringe-worthy (at best) and downright uncomfortable to read (at worst). And yet, this awkward and socially clumsy girl with a colourful childhood and – as we later find out – an equally colourful adulthood, has won the hearts of a huge readership. Precisely, I think, for the very reasons outlined above.
Eleanor is lonely. She has been ill-nurtured in a world that she doesn’t altogether understand and then thrown headfirst into it, entirely on her own. She occasionally meets people who are kind but, such is the nature of the world these days, people are seldom just being kind, and because of this Eleanor is unfamiliar with genuinely thoughtful gestures and instead dismisses them, opting instead for her own company and her own safety, which is what she has come to rely on.
Now, if this doesn’t sound familiar to you – to some degree, at least – then you’re living a very good life indeed, because who hasn’t been Eleanor? Without the tragic past, I sincerely hope! But the loneliness, the alienation from society’s kindness, all of that is, surely for some if not most, an all too familiar feeling – again I say, at least to some degree. While other fictional heroines – not all, I stress, but certainly some – manage to see and experience the good in the world, Eleanor has actually seen and experienced some of the worst in the world. Eleanor is alone, depressed, and to some extent alcohol dependent – although this is a largely unexplored feature of the book – and she’s also entirely relatable, which is precisely why she is being built into a world-famous heroine of contemporary fiction.
Honeyman hasn’t given us a neat story and a happy ending; she has given us grit and a character who is hardened and determined enough to push through it, again and again – single-handedly, might I add. Eleanor, despite leaning on Raymond for support and comfort in the latter chapters of the book, experiences the worst of everything on her own, and it’s only when she starts to come through the other side does she begin to lean on those around – now she finally feels mentally able to.
Eleanor’s story is a difficult one, admittedly, but the difficulties are precisely what make the sunshine-moments so distinct and clear. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine not only portrays the worst of humanity but also some of the best of it, and this is communicated through one of the most unconventional heroines that we’ve seen, I think, in quite some time. In her own way, Eleanor has the potential to be an iconic female protagonist, and with a film on the way – rumour has it – it’s only a matter of time before Honeyman’s message, through the mouthpiece of Eleanor, spreads to a wider readership and audience. I am sincerely grateful to have been given a heroine who has crawled her way back from the depths honestly, unashamedly, and without the guiding hand of a patriarchal figure to push her along the way. Eleanor, although unconventional, is also entirely necessary for well-rounded material on what young women are and can be – and she is also a character who will stay with you long after you finish the final page.