Author: Gail Honeyman
Format: E-book via NetGalley, 336 pages
Pub Date: May 9, 2017
Summary from Publisher:
Eleanor Oliphant is, well, a bit of an oddball–albeit a loveable one. She struggles with appropriate social skills and tends to say exactly what she’s thinking…and that, combined with her unusual appearance (scarred cheek, a tendency to wear the same clothes year after year), means that Eleanor has become a bit of a loner. But she thinks that nothing really important is missing in her carefully timetabled life of avoiding perplexing social interactions, where weekends are punctuated by frozen pizza, Glen’s Vodka, and phone chats with “Mummy.”
But everything changes when Eleanor meets Raymond, the bumbling and sweet IT guy from her office. When she and Raymond together save Sammy, an elderly gentleman who has fallen on the sidewalk, the three become the kind of friends who rescue one another from the lives of isolation they have each been living. It’s Raymond’s big heart that will ultimately help Eleanor find the way to repairing her own damaged one, as she realizes that the only way to survive in the real world is to open her life to friendship–and that there’s always room there for love, too…
- From NetGalley
I received the e-book, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman from its publisher, Penguin Random House Canada through NetGalley on May 8, 2017; my first title to review in the form of an e-book. Otherwise, I’ve only reviewed hardcopies I have received from publishers, or bought myself, or borrowed from the library.
And because the narrative of the novel as first-person was not only effectively written, believable, and intelligent, I literally could not put the book down. Though such a claim is usually considered a cliché, it was in fact, true in my case (or at least, I couldn’t put my Kindle down). And the end result? I finished the novel in a record pace of two days. Two days! That’s a personal record for me in terms of reading a full-length novel.
And I can’t credit any personal speed reading ability on my account (because, no, I don’t speed read), but can only credit that the book was indeed that enjoyable, and therefore easy to read extremely quickly. (Lucky for me! Faster reading also means the opportunity to read more books.)
But back to this one.
By the nature of its title, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, it professes to reassure its reader that its main character of whom the title refers: Eleanor, that she is also completely fine. But, by doing so, it does in effect hint at the opposite being true because who in any way, including characters in books, can be wholly and completely fine? Not anyone I certainly know. And certainly, not the character in this particular novel, of which its named.
As any reader will quickly realize progressing through the novel, its protagonist: the character whose first-person narrative the book belongs to, is indeed not fine, but, instead, quite the opposite, if not traumatized. (Don’t worry, I’m not one to divulge unecessary spoilers.)
She’s an intriguing and complex character whose ability to randomly recall facts and academia, her fierce intelligence and humour, and formal, wordy eloquence—while these are gifts in of themselves—they are also set against her narrow and literal interpretation of what people say and do around her, only to further add to her personal oddities and ultimately her social exclusion, but also keenly reveal her lack of ability to intuitively understand and interpret accepted social cues and values.
These symptoms are similar to those associated with Asperger’s Syndrome and other mental health conditions, while the author does not literally assign, associate, or mention this condition in relation to the main character.
Instead, Eleanor’s ritualistic behaviour, strong opinions, literal, rigid personality, and lack of awareness and understanding of social cues and practices often leave her self-deprecating, socially isolated, and inevitably lonely to the point of dysfunction.
To read the novel in first-person narrative throughout the book and hear Eleanor’s voice, gives the reader direct and intimate access to her thoughts, nuances, and desires (and sometimes her lack of desire), as well as the way she identifies herself, interprets those around her, and the way she measures the success and failure of her own life as she understands it.
Ultimately, readers get a full, intimate view of Eleanor in the way she sees and understands things—or rather, how she often misunderstands them.
The book’s character is somewhat of a paradox: while her high-functioning IQ, formal eloquence, and superior organizational skills reveal a highly intelligent and mature individual, she is also, by her lack of intuition and understanding of social, acceptable behaviour, and knowledge of the world at large due to her having been ostracized and isolated for most of her life, make her also seem like a woman with a stunted perspective of a young child. This ignorance, which is by no means a fault of her own, gives her both an odd quality, as well as an innocent, almost endearing one.
It’s hard not to empathize with such a character, to feel perplexed about her thought process and actions, curious about the condition she’s afflicted with, and what specific circumstances drove her to internalize such low self-worth, pain, and hardship.
Yet, even though Eleanor’s personal and social life lacks the gusto of her more well-adjusted peers, her thoughts, though often self-deprecating, and perhaps somewhat judgemental, are, in reading them, also wonderfully intelligent, hilarious, and brutally honest.
While there’s a suffering to who Eleanor is and how she must navigate her life in order to cope with it and her past, there is also undeniable truth in the things she thinks and says—which is, for her, often the same thing—since she says exactly what she thinks without filter.
While this behaviour can and is often frowned upon by social standards; to read it in the way the author has intelligently voiced it through Eleanor’s narrative, is both genuine and refreshing.
And the book isn’t written in a melancholy tone though the main character suffers and has suffered physical and emotional trauma. It does, in its endearing way, shift its plot and narrative to one of hope and change as Eleanor slowly learns how to ease herself into the nuances of the social stratosphere she faces with the anxious, unexpected, yet eventual welcome of new friends in the form of a co-worker in the IT department named Raymond, and the serendipitous chance of helping a stranger named Sammy, in his time of need.
The plot moves into Eleanor’s crisis with the deft understanding of how someone who suffers from a traumatic past and must battle mental health issues because of it, must also endure and somehow end or resolve personal crisis.
The narrative and the characters’ dialogue is wonderfully convincing from: Raymond’s thoughtful patience, and Sammy’s charismatic wit, to Mummy’s condescending narcissism.
Together, the novel triumphs in its narrative intimacy, its horrific backstory of abuse and violence, and its authentic story of a struggle for a young woman to come to terms with her past and her own limitations in order to grow and navigate much deserved self-love and acceptance into her hopeful and evolving future.
Though the character, Eleanor Oliphant, may never be completely fine—because, really, who ever is?—Her journey towards healthy autonomy, emotional and social growth, and contentment on her own terms, is a fine enough cause for readers to witness and applaud.
This is a fine novel and even more so impressive, a debut. I look forward to reading more of Gail Honeyman’s work as it arises and encourage others to add Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine to their bookshelves.
The book will hopefully render a mirror to its readers’ chance misjudgement of those who suffer from mental illness and those whom we can sometimes carelessly isolate and ostracize.
Characters: 4 stars
Plot: 4 stars
Language/Narrative: 4 stars
Dialogue: 4 stars
Pacing: 4 stars
Cover Design: 3.5 stars
A special thanks to Penguin Random House on behalf of Viking for providing me with an e-copy of the book, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman through NetGalley in exchange for an honest and timely review.
About the Author:
- From Goodreads