Trigger warning: sexual violence, child abuse
Eleanor Oliphant leads a simple life. She wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day and buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend.
Eleanor Oliphant is happy. Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled existence. Except, sometimes, everything…
I know there are still three months of it left, but I think I can say now with some confidence that Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman is going to be my favourite book of 2018. It’s not entirely surprising. Since it was published last year, Eleanor Oliphant has been a pretty Big Deal – number one Sunday Times bestseller, Costa Book Award-winner, Reese Witherspoon movie option. But, weirdly, none of that prepared me for quite how wonderful this tragic, strange, horrifying, funny and hopeful little book turned out to be.
You know that kid you went to school with that everyone bullied? The one nobody wanted to sit with at lunch, not even the nice kids? I’m talking about the kind of kid who, even when as a nice kid yourself, you tried to connect with them, made it really, really difficult for you? That’s Eleanor Oliphant. The perpetual outsider – sad to be alone but equally combative, to say the least, toward any potential friends.
I think that’s what made me like her so much.
Eleanor, at least before you get to know her a little, is not a likeable lady. Her co-workers are morons, her doctor inept and her social worker a complete waste of space – according to her. On the rare occasion she finds herself at the pub if she buys you a drink she expects her money back, in full, by the next morning at the latest. When she and her new co-worker, Raymond, see an elderly man collapse in the street, Eleanor is not particularly inclined to help him – though they do, an action that turns out to be the right decision for so many reasons.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is the story of a traumatised and disconnected person gradually finding her way out of the darkness. You know from very early on in the novel – the first few pages, so no spoilers I promise – that something truly terrible happened to Eleanor Oliphant when she was a child, so terrible that she has erased it from her memory. So terrible that during every annual visit, when her social worker offers her the opportunity to read her own file, she declines.
But Eleanor Oliphant is no victim. Her story is of the life-changing impact small acts of kindness can have on a person. Eleanor has been so closed off from the world, when people successfully connect with her and treat her with compassion, it shows her that connection and compassion are possibilities. Shen she comes to face her trauma – as she, and we all, must – she finds strength in her own survival of the kind of horror most people will, thankfully, never experience.
Eleanor is not the most likeable lady. She doesn’t read social cues well, she can be judgemental and even ungrateful at times. But she’s also very funny, utterly vulnerable and doing the hard work of piecing herself back together – which doesn’t feel adequate to describe the way she really creates herself, building a woman from the ground up.
Rising from the ashes.
Life is hard. The news is relentless. Personal lives are complicated. Sometimes you need a boost, and in Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman created a story of hope that brought me so much joy. I can’t recommend it enough.