As some of you may already know, I’ve recently dived right into reading a lot of the Women’s Prize for Fiction books. I really want to read all of the shortlisted books this year, and although that list hasn’t yet been finalised, I’ve already started picking off some of the ones which have made the longlist. Prior to picking up this book I’d just finished reading Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done. I thoroughly enjoyed this historical crime novel, as you can see from my review. Wanting to continue the train of great books I decided to next read what is probably the most hyped up book on the list this year; Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.
Everyone’s been raving about this book on Booktube and Instagram and everywhere in between. It’s made countless bestsellers lists, has won the 2017 Costa Book Awards and the rights to the film have already been bought by Reese Witherspoon. A lot to live up to then, but what is it really about?
As the book suggests, its main focus is our titular character, Eleanor Oliphant. Eleanor, as the blurb tells us, ‘leads a simple life’. Every day she gets up, puts on the same clothes, and goes to work in the same place. She eats the same lunch at the same time every day, completing her daily crossword puzzle. At the weekend she buys the same two bottles of vodka which she drinks by herself. Eleanor considers herself happy. She knows her place in the world; what is expected of her and what she can expect in return. Nothing is missing from her life. That is, until the accidental fall of an elderly man forces Eleanor to interact in ways she never normally would, pushing her outside of her comfort zone and showing her that perhaps she is missing something after all. Yet Eleanor does not want to open her eyes to the world completely. There are things which she does not want to remember, terrible things which she can only survive if they stay in her past.
One of the key aspects of this novel, and the thing which makes it resonate so brilliantly with readers, is the skillful characterisation throughout the novel. Eleanor, as you might be able to guess, is what society would deem a rather quirky character. She doesn’t follow social conventions and at times she is entirely clueless at to what other people would typical expect of her. In many ways, her character reminded me quite strongly of Don Tilman from The Rosie Project. Witnessing the things Eleanor says and does is extremely liberating; I know that sometimes I would love to be as blunt and honest as she is, but recede from such actions when I consider the social implications. Free from these social restraints, Eleanor’s character is often hilarious, adding a humorous element to the novel which makes this an entertaining read.
On the other hand there is far more to Eleanor than this quirky individual who doesn’t quite seem to fit into society. We get to know her on a very personal level, coming to understand that perhaps she is the way she is because of wider contexts which were first established in her childhood. This is perhaps the most intriguing element of the novel, as we come to understand that something horrific has happened in Eleanor early life (something which has physically scarred her) but the truth is concealed. Eleanor is not ready to deal with her own memories, and as such we are given a somewhat hazy insight into her past, a technique which only fuels the reader’s intense desire to make sense of Eleanor’s character. It was really interesting to see how this widening knowledge coloured our own reading of Eleanor, creating a quite complex range of emotions.
Interwoven through this is the possibility that Eleanor may have a form of autism. Indeed, many of her actions seem highly suggestive of this, and I think it’s great that even if this is the case, the author never felt the need to openly address it or make it into the main focus or a spectacle of the book. The book is about Eleanor herself, not about any conditions she may or may not suffer from. If we do consider Eleanor as an autistic character, it’s also really brilliant to see this done in the context of an older woman. Books like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime give us fantastic insight into what it might be like for a child with autism, but I feel that in Eleanor we have the next step as an adult character.
On the face of it Eleanor is not immediately a likeable person. There are times where her sense of tact seems minute, and she sometimes makes decisions which would typically be frowned upon or considered ‘stingy’. Yet we also have this incredibly lonely character who quite often is treated in a manner which is entirely unfair and unfriendly. This is something which is only heightened when you begin to make sense of her upsetting past. This tension between sympathy and potential dislike provides a really interesting read, and I think this book would be really great as a group discussion topic to see how people react differently to Eleanor. Above all though, it is clear that Eleanor does not want sympathy. She appears largely content with her life and believes that she does not need the sympathy. The irony is of course that the ones who often deserve the help the most are the ones least likely to ask for it, a thoughts which adds such poignancy to this book.
This novel handles difficult topic matters, yet it is never overly dramatic or upsetting for the sake of it. The author could have exaggerated and played on Eleanor’s past to a great extent, but instead chooses to give us only enough details to help us fully understand the characters. Indeed, the book at times is actually quite a light hearted and enjoyable read. There is a subtle sense of humour and irony within this which perfectly complements the darker aspects of the novel. At one point Eleanor comments that someone is a ‘spectacularly unsophisticated conversationalist’ (p. 101), when in reality most people would be thinking the exact thing about Eleanor herself! Her literal way of looking at life really does make you stand back and examine the many rules and regulations which we find ourselves duty bound to follow in order to be accepted into society. I also really enjoyed watching Eleanor learn more about her own self and discovering new experiences, be they inconsequential or pretty massive. I particularly enjoyed a certain scene where Eleanor finds herself at a heavy metal concert, completely unprepared for the onslaught which is about o greet her ears.
Thinking back on this novel with hindsight, the thing that really stands out for me is the way this novel tackles the idea of loneliness. Whilst this really is a wonderful and charming read at times, it certainly takes a heartbreaking look at the massive problem of loneliness which so many people face in silence. One scene in particular struck me very heavily when Eleanor says:
‘I contributed nothing to the world, absolutely nothing, and I took nothing from it either. When ceased to exist, it would make no material difference to anyone. Most people’s absence from the world would be felt on a personal level by at least a handful of people. I, however, had no one’(p. 268).
These thoughts are situated in an already distressing context, but it really set alarm bells ringing further in my head when I pondered her words over. How many people feel this way ever single day? How many people are quite literally on their own day in day out, not speaking to a single soul from the moment they finish work on a Friday to when they return on a Monday? It’s so devastatingly upsetting, and its made worse by the fact that most of us would never even spare a thought to people in such circumstances. The way the author brings this topic to light, especially with a character such as Eleanor who is far from feeling sorry for her own self, is so refreshing. It makes you realise the potentially huge impact just one single word or action can have upon another person. As the novel states, ‘loneliness is the new cancer – a shameful, embarrassing thing, brought upon yourself in some obscure way’ (p. 270). I think the authors done a phenomenal job of trying to break apart the stigma surrounding loneliness, and I couldn’t praise her any higher for it.
Another aspect of this book which I found to be so expertly done was that the author never suggests that in order to stop loneliness the cure is to become romantically involved with someone. The emphasis in this book is explicitly on the importance of friendship and forming bonds with other people even if on the face of things you would appear to be polar opposites. The simple knowledge that someone is there for you, that someone cares and loves you for who you already are, is a comfort beyond words. There was something so wholesome and touching about watching Eleanor learn that she is deserving of such friendship, and its a crucial message for any readers of this book to take away with them.
In many ways, this book doesn’t have a clear definitive plot. It’s much more about the characters on a personal level, especially with regards to Eleanor and how she has to try and overcome the incidents of her past. Even if this may not be the most thrilling books in terms of plot, it moves forwards with a fantastic pace, rewarding the reader with subtler key moments and a few little shocks scattered throughout. I honestly couldn’t get enough of this book. It’s an expertly accomplished book which explores the darkness of loneliness and abuse, all the while providing a charming and poignant story that you just can help but fall for!
Publisher: Harper Collins