You know when someone asks how you are and you say “Fine”, despite the fact that your day/week/month/year has been completely shit?
That basically sums up the main character in Gail Honeyman’s smash debut, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. Obviously Eleanor Oliphant isn’t fine. In fact, she’s a lonely young woman, set in her rather odd ways. A chain of events forces her to re-evaluate life.
I enjoyed Eleanor’s odd take on things and her formal, stilted interactions with others were strangely endearing.
Save for the exquisite oeuvre of a certain Mr Lomond, I have yet to find a genre of music I enjoy; it’s basically audible physics, waves and energized particles, and, like most sane people, I have no interest in physics. It therefore struck me as bizarre that I was humming a tune from Oliver! I mentally added the exclamation mark, which, for the first time ever, was appropriate.
And of a visiting social worker she says that she’s “checking to make sure that I’m not storing my own urine in demijohns or kidnapping magpies and sewing them into pillowcases.”
However, I found some of Eleanor’s personality traits and behaviour incongruent. Eleanor is intelligent, reads the newspaper every day, watches television and lives in a big city but didn’t know what McDonald’s was. She sometimes shows obsessive-compulsive tendencies, particularly in relation to hygiene and security, but not always. She’s wary of people she doesn’t know and yet she hands herself over to the professionals for her first wax and a makeover, without any hesitation. These small inconsistencies made it difficult to trust where Honeyman was taking me with Eleanor (a lot of readers interpret Eleanor’s character as socially awkward or on the autism spectrum, however, I thought that her self-imposed isolation and strict routines were a coping mechanism for her childhood trauma, as was her self-medication with vodka).
There were parts of the plot that were predictable from the outset – that bothered me less than all the hints and drawn-out suspense surrounding Eleanor’s early trauma. The main plot twist, when it comes, is unexpected and delivered in a way that while believable, was pretty annoying.
Despite this, I did enjoy the book. It was light, and had some very funny and touching moments. I think the overall themes of loneliness and isolation were well executed and it was interesting to see loneliness in a character who was relatively young – too often these are the stories of the elderly and yet we know that loneliness is not age-specific.
There are scars on my heart, just as thick, as disfiguring as those on my face. I know they’re there. I hope some undamaged tissue remains, a patch through which love can come in and flow out. I hope.
Eleanor’s yearning for connection is beautifully expressed – she’s not looking for pity, she’s not demanding understanding –
I do not light up a room when I walk into it. No one longs to see me or hear my voice. I do not feel sorry for myself, not in the least. These are simply statements of fact.
Eleanor simply wants a meaningful connection.
After some contemplation, I had opted for a square of indeterminate white fish, which was coated in breadcrumbs and deep fried and then inserted between an overly sweet bread bun, accompanied, bizarrely, by a processed cheese slice, a limp lettuce leaf, and some salty, tangy white slime which bordered on obscenity… I am no epicure; however, surely it is a culinary truth universally acknowledged that fish and cheese do not go together? Someone really ought to tell Mr McDonald.