Eleanor Oliphant is a Completely Fine Novel

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
By Gail Honeyman
Penguin Books, 352 pages.

Thirty-year-old Eleanor Oliphant is fine with being on her own. She’s fine with having been shuttled between various foster homes as a child, with having a tyrannical mother, and a meddlesome council caseworker. She's totally fine with a lifestyle that revolves around vodka and crossword puzzles, living in a Glasgow apartment appointed with thrift store furnishings, and with being thought “mental” by her work mates. For the most part, other people annoy her, so she’s "completely fine" in her own world.

We all know, of course, that more often than not, when someone claims to be fine, they are anything but. Gail Honeyman’s novel is told in Eleanor’s voice and orchestrated in three connected movements: “Good Days,” “Bad Days,” and a new round of “Good Days.” The first chunk of the book is devoted to Eleanor’s worldview and it’s a hoot. With the possible exceptions of Richard Russo’s Straight Man and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, I can’t recall laughing aloud more than I did while reading Eleanor Oliphant.

Two themes emerge very quickly. First, we suspect Eleanor’s colleagues might be right, but we know for certain that she is incredibly smart—perhaps gifted—and possesses an enormous vocabulary. In her world, a sausage is “mechanically recovered meat,” duffel coats are “surely the preserve of children and small bears,” and social worker house visits take place to “make sure I’m not storing my own urine in demijohns or kidnapping magpies and sewing them into pillowcases.”

We also know that Eleanor is socially and culturally inept. She simply disregards filters. When asked is she’d care for a cigarette, Eleanor is not the sort to say, "No thank you.” Instead she replies,

I thoroughly research all activities before commencement, and smoking did not in the end seem to me to be a viable or sensible pastime. It’s financially rebarbative too.

Her first attempt at a makeover results in telling the clerk, “I look like a small Madagascan primate, or perhaps a North American raccoon.” As you might imagine, she also finds MacDonald’s an insipid place. You must read chapter 14 to appreciate Eleanor’s take down of Mickey D's. Here’s a small sample:

Naturally, I had been about to pour [coffee] all over myself but, just in time, had read the warning printed on the cup, alerting me to the fact hot liquids can cause injury. A lucky escape, Eleanor!

Add MacDonald’s to the list of things about which Eleanor knows nothing, one that also includes dancing, cell phones, how to deal with emergencies, music, small talk, and correct social etiquette for most occasions. In fact, she believes the animal world is a better guide for behavior: “If I am ever unsure as to the correct course of action, I’ll think, ‘What would a ferret do?’”

Eleanor’s regimented world is challenged when an elderly man (Sammy) collapses in public and she and a coworker named Raymond come to his aid, he willingly and Eleanor reluctantly. She can’t bear the thought of taking Sammy up on his offer to consider herself a member of his family, but Raymond persists and Eleanor must attempt to deal with this, as well as a visit to Raymond’s mother. It’s all very disruptive of her grand plan: to convince a musician whose looks she fancies to fall in love with her. Mind, they’ve never actually met, but Eleanor has a detailed scheme and she knows it’s a sound one.

I give away nothing when I say that a lot of Eleanor’s veneer of “fine” is as patchy as the eczema on her hands. Honeyman skillfully leads us from light to dark. She does so in ways far smarter than what I call Pity That Affliction books and movies. It is no small feat to keep readers laughing, even when not-so-funny things occur, but Ms Honeyman sticks her landings. In good novelistic tradition, she slowly pulls back the curtain on Eleanor’s life, but avoids venturing into the miraculous. Eleanor, like any adult, changes but not into Cinderella. Do you know anyone who ever did? Special kudos go to Honeyman for making Eleanor a fully realized character on all levels, one who is more than the sum of her sorrows.

My one negative critique is that Honeyman overwrote the concluding section of the novel. She introduces a final twist in Eleanor’s personality profile but by then, it’s an unneeded element that is too cursorily sprung upon us. It’s also one used by other writers, most notably Roddy Doyle. This aside, Eleanor Oliphant is a terrific novel. Honeyman deftly mines Scottish humor and sprinkles its dust upon her unforgettable protagonist before taking us into the dark parts of the cave. Amazingly, this is Honeyman’s first novel. Well done, lass!

Rob Weir


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