During the latter half of 2017, Gail Honeyman‘s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine gained a lot of attention both in literary circles and mainstream media. Even my boss recommended that I read it. It’s commonplace for new writers to produce fresh, buzz-worthy novels, but I wondered, after reading the book’s description, how it came to resonate so deeply with people. Surely the story of a 30-year-old socially awkward office worker sounds like a Bridget Jones spin-off—something that would read like a light comedy of errors…
Alas, Honeyman offers us something altogether different in her debut. Yes, Ms. Eleanor Oliphant is a painfully well-mannered outcast in the accounts payable department of an ad design agency. She follows the same routine every day—lunchtime crossword puzzles and carefully chosen sandwiches. Same bus route, same outfits, same radio programs.
Eleanor is such a firm narrator that we barely even notice the strangeness of the facts she gives us about her life, like the fact that she’s near fluent in Latin and won prizes for her studies in classics; or that she has burn scars on her face; or that her weekends always kick off with a pizza from her beloved Tesco’s and vodka. Quite a lot of it. Enough to blur the edges of nightmares that haunt her in ways that become clearer as the novel progresses. Enough so that she can handle her weekly conversations with “Mummy,” an emotionally abusive narcissist who did something horrific in Eleanor’s past, though Eleanor protested to know what happened.
Eleanor sticks to her routines without fail until she falls helplessly in love with a musician she sees one night out in Glasgow. She knows nothing about him but firmly believes they are meant to be together and will fall in love once they meet. In preparation for such a meeting, Eleanor embarks on a personal project, deciding to make some (mostly cosmetic) changes, including a cringe-worthy encounter during an appointment to wax her undercarriage…
Slowly but surely, other things in her life begin to change as well. In the nascent days of her newfound love, Eleanor meets Raymond—one of the IT guys in her office. Nearly everything about him repels her; he’s slightly overweight, smokes often, and wears nothing but t-shirts, jeans, and sneakers. But what probably would have been a one-time encounter blossoms into an odd friendship after they assist an elderly man named Sammy who stumbles on the street.
Now, the loneliness of Eleanor’s life shifts into days that are sometimes filled with places to go and people to see. Through her conversations with Raymond, Eleanor confirms what the reader has suspected since the beginning—that she has experienced unimaginable abuse at the hands of her mother and her one and only boyfriend, and that the only real social interaction she’s had in her twenties is with social workers and an employee at her local market.
Having a few friends seems to benefit Eleanor, but the darkness of her past lies just beneath the surface of her simply crafted life. The novel—separated into Good Days and Bad Days—takes a sharp turn about halfway through. One moment we are with Eleanor as she’s about to attend one of the rock star’s gigs, the next we find her naked on her kitchen floor with self-induced alcohol poisoning and a display of tools with which she can kill herself.
Such is the range of Honeyman’s staggering book. Readers are endeared to Eleanor’s strange ways from the beginning, maybe even recognizing some of our own tendencies in her. She is awkward—often painfully so—even though she thinks she’s being proper. But she is charming in her way: a lover of animals, books, Tesco’s, and mismatched furniture. We see her transition from a broken person to a recovering one—surrounded by unexpected friendships and caregivers.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is a stunning, heartbreaking story of healing that is often darkly funny and full of sharp observations. Honeyman moves her narrative at a steady, digestible pace without missing moments that infuse the text with transcendent bits of introspection in the mind of Eleanor—so much that one cannot help but reread certain passages and covet the new talent springing forth from these pages.