I had incredibly conflicted feelings while reading “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine”. It focuses on loneliness – a subject I come back to continuously on my blog because it is, in part, a self-conscious exploration of that state. The beginning of this novel is prefaced by a quotation from “The Lonely City” by Olivia Laing, one of my favourite books from 2016 – so my expectations were incredibly high. Author Gail Honeyman has spoken about how her initial inspiration for the novel came from reading about an ordinary young adult who had an extremely solitary existence bouncing between work and home with no socializing in between. This is protagonist Eleanor’s routine life. She has a frosty relationship with her colleagues and no one to speak to outside of the office except for weekly phone calls with her belligerent and cruel mother. But, after watching a handsome singer at a gig, she’s inspired to change and camouflage herself “as a human woman” in order to make him fall for her. As she gradually emerges from her hermetic shell she’s forced to confront a painful past and all the emotions she’s suppressed for so long.
Although I’m really invested in the central subject and some sections were very moving, this novel ultimately didn’t come together for me because I couldn’t believe in Eleanor’s character. Even though she has no social contact and is a creature of habit, it doesn’t make sense to me that she’s entirely ignorant about many pop cultural references and aspects of society. It’s noted in the story how she’s someone who regularly reads the newspaper, listens to the radio and watches television, but she’s never heard of McDonalds, SpongeBob SquarePants or the dance YMCA. She’s completely at a loss as to how to conduct a transaction when ordering a takeaway pizza or buying a computer and when a beautician giving her a makeover asks if she’d like a smoky eye she replies she doesn’t like anything to do with smoking. Even for someone who lives in such an isolated way, it feels like she could glean a lot of this information and get an idea of how people interact from the media she consumes. But many times it feels like she’s literally an alien.
You could argue that she has some sort of developmental disability or personality disorder based on trauma or years spent in intense isolation. Or it could be she’s just really bad at social situation. She expresses at one point how she finds people unfathomable: “I often find that I don’t understand why they do and say things.” However, this doesn’t seem compatible with the fact that she’s highly intelligent and could deduce many things about how social situations work. Also, later on, she expresses how “by careful observation from the sidelines, I’d worked out that social success is often built on pretending just a little. Popular people sometimes have to laugh at things they don’t find very funny, do things they don’t particularly want to, with people whose company they don’t particularly enjoy. Not me. I had decided, years ago, that if the choice was between that or flying solo, then I’d fly solo. It was safer that way. Grief is the price we pay for love, so they say. The price is far too high.” So it’s not that she doesn’t understand social norms, but chooses to reject them. This seems inconsistent with her character’s actions and reactions throughout the novel where she literally doesn’t understand what people mean or why they act the way they do.
Also, the tone of the novel felt quite uneven where I wasn’t sure if the author or Eleanor were being intentionally funny or not. At a funeral she considers the various ways that a corpse can be disposed of and she thinks how when she dies she’d like to be fed to zoo animals. She plans to write to the WWF to find out if this would be possible. It felt very difficult to know if instances like this were just supposed to be funny or if we were supposed to actually believe her outrageous naivety. Also, she expresses how much she loves reading and has a particular fondness for Jane Eyre, but later she remarks how she ends up reading dull manuals because she’s so entirely baffled as to how to find literature she’d enjoy and states “There are so many books in the world – how do you tell them all apart?” But someone who is as smart as she is and went to university surely would be able to guess that if she likes Jane Eyre so much she’d probably like to try reading some other classic fiction.
On the positive side, there were some sections I found effective. In particular, I thought Eleanor’s relationship with money was portrayed strongly. She’s highly conscious of how much she spends and is scrupulous about contributing anything to social occasions such as buying people drinks. She describes how “if I were to run out of funds, find myself indebted, there is no one, not a single soul, on whom I could call to bail me out. I’d be destitute.” So it’d make sense that she’d be particularly anxious about safeguarding her personal finances. She's basically a high functioning alcoholic and when she experiences an instance of totally crashing on an all-out binge it's really powerful. I also appreciated the gentle way the author handles the way people react to Eleanor’s odd behaviour where some sneer/mock her and others approach her with more sensitivity. Her journey towards building somewhat stable friendships and accepting herself was well plotted. But Eleanor as a character didn’t feel wholly convincing to me. I also think the story would have been stronger if Eleanor’s hidden history wasn’t so melodramatic. It feels like it would have been more effective and relatable if she just happened to be an awkward introvert.
It’s interesting reading this novel now that it’s been out almost a year and gained some supporters as well as strong detractors. It was the winner in the debut fiction category of the Costa Awards and has been nominated for numerous other awards such as The Women’s Prize and the Desmond Elliott Prize. So it’s caused this book to come under a lot more scrutiny than a debut novel would usually get. I don’t think opinions could ever become as sharply divided as they were for the novel “A Little Life”, but this novel seems to be coming close.