On The Shelf: ‘Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine’ by Gail Honeyman

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Credit: Viking

‘Sup readers? It’s been awhile (two weeks, in fact) since my last bookish post. For that, I apologize and simply have to acknowledge that sometimes you beat the stomach flu, and sometimes it bowls you over so efficiently. It’s like Regina George throwing the ultimate B.F. at some poor kid who just wants to do her writing in peace (yes, I did just compare the stomach flu to an iconic Rachel McAdams character). But no matter! Regina George has been hit by a bus— err, I’m feeling better— and all is well again.

I did promise the last time I wrote an On The Shelf review, the next title would be for an older audience, because the overwhelming majority of On The Shelf picks so far have been YA. I’d hate to break a promise— and so this week’s book is adult contemporary fiction, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman’s debut novel.

I should note that this is the second time I have broken one of my own personal rules for book-buying. Usually, I’ll check something out on my ereader before purchasing a physical copy, because shelf-space is limited and curating a library of books I truly enjoy and want to re-read is more important than having rows of pretty but mediocre titles, thus the purpose of this column. But while browsing at my local bookstore, I came across Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine in a rare turn of events, the paperback and hardback were published the same day— and scooped up the paperback on impulse. The dark blue cover, with gorgeous text (what font is that? Does anyone know?), minimalistic animals strutting around, and what looks like thick dabs of smeared spray paint spattered around, was just too pretty to resist. I’m usually so good at tamping down the urge to cave and cover buy (thanks to a series of aesthetically-pleasing books that were all hype and no substance), but hey, it happens.

As for the book itself… well, to be frank, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is, genuinely, the quirkiest novel I’ve read in quite some time. There are some books that try to be quirky, and others that are eyebrow-raising in how offbeat they are, but Honeyman’s debut was a very real portrait of an adult outcast whose hermitic lifestyle and painful lack of social grace is as poignant as it is uncomfortable.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine stars (as you would guess), Eleanor Oliphant, a woman who is content to be alone because the rest of the human race isn’t compatible with her expectations. She believes she is fine, needing nothing and no one but herself to survive— until she and Raymond, a bumbling, all-around-below-average IT tech from work, save an old man, Sammy, when he falls in the street. In a weird way, these three misfits save each other— and for Eleanor, who has never known true kindness in her life, it’s a strange, painful journey of self-discovery, friendship, and love.  

I’ve spoken before, in a previous review, about how it takes a special kind of author to write an unlikeable character in a way that makes the character and the surrounding story something that readers actually care about (I know a lot of people don’t care for character development and would rather follow along for the plot, which is totally cool. It’s just not my style. I want to care about all aspects of a story, or the whole thing will fall flat for me). In fact, I’ve been really harsh on books for having unlikeable protagonists because they have nothing going for them, and my interest in whatever the author has to say is completely drowned out by the grating voice they chose to use.

But when it comes to writing unlikeable characters, Honeyman is the type of author who can pull this off in spades. Eleanor comes by her prickly personality honestly— I know that’s a weird thing to say. If you’ve read it, you’ll understand— and in such a way that you can’t help but hope she triumphs. She knows she is unlikeable, but isn’t sure why, and everyone around her seems to be lacking in something that makes them unlikeable to her. She has no filter, doesn’t consider that she might need one (inviting someone out and then promptly ditching them, casually and carelessly insulting a near-stranger, blaming her own ill-informed beauty choices on a flabbergasted cosmetologist, stalking a musician that she believes to be the man of her dreams, etc.) and frequently refers to the animal kingdom as a guide for how to behave. But in Eleanor, there is also a deep sadness— she has never been shown kindness or love, and so has no model for how to give those things besides what she deems is appropriate from observing people and consuming media.

Honestly, this book was difficult to read, on emotional grounds (yeah, yeah, I know, it’s only a book. But it’s a really good book). Eleanor keeps herself— and readers— at a distance from the atrocities of her life, and so all we really know is that one side of her face is horribly scarred. She’s unwilling to really remember or be informed of the truth, but bit by bit, as the novel progresses, her own past comes leaking out, from the sad truth of her conception and onwards.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is masterfully conducted. Eleanor is so damaged that she realizes it (she’s sad when a mother shows her son affection, but is at least cheered by the fact that she can in fact, recognize it, and so won’t be completely hopeless when it happens to her), but as with many true-life cases, she doesn’t let herself acknowledge how deep that damage runs. Honeyman certainly did her research: there are a plethora of books where the protagonist wears their baggage like a badge of honour across their chest and uses it as justification to behave badly, in a way that screams, “I AM DAMAGED AND YOU MUST FIX IT!” This is different, and strikingly, achingly accurate. Eleanor is so insidiously broken that even the smallest, most innocent acts of kindness unbalance her.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is emotional, gripping, awkward, funny, melancholy and smart. Honeyman has exploded out of the gate with an unforgettable debut, and if ever she were to return to Eleanor in a sequel, I would pre-order it in a heartbeat. I have the feeling I’ll be re-reading this in the future, so thank you for that, Gail Honeyman!
So, pretty obviously, this one is a definite keeper to have on the shelf. If you’d like a copy, you can grab one here.

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