You can’t have too much dog in a book.
Gail Honeyman, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
I need to give a disclaimer for this contemporary women’s fiction novel: Honeyman lives in Glasgow. I went to the University of Glasgow. That pretty much makes Honeyman and I best friends, and this book the greatest book of all time for being set in Glasgow.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way I can talk about how this contemporary women’s fiction novel shamelessly ripped me open and tore out my guts.
Eleanor Oliphant works in an office. She has a deliberate routine, which carefully contains her life. She is the epitome of when a person asks if everything is all right when you’re in a foul mood and your knee jerk reaction is, “I’m fine!” That’s Eleanor. She’s anything but fine but she damn well will not tell you that because the word “fine” is the only barrier between her and the thing that will let her carefully constructed world come crumbling down.
I see so much of myself reflected in Eleanor. Her careful movements. The certain way she has of doing things. These tiny things each and every one of us do because routine brings comfort. Sameness brings security. Eleanor takes this very basic, human trait and explodes it to unseen proportions in order to grapple with a childhood so grotesque it can only be revealed to the reader in small, manageable bites. Eleanor is every one of us if we had just made a slightly different decision.
I think that’s why it’s so easy to root for her.
Take her obsession with the musician. We’ve all had this obsession. We’ve all picked out that one person somewhere in the trail of our life and decided that one person is going to change everything when they realize how much they love us. We being rational human beings realize this isn’t true but the fanciful parts of our brains enjoy the mirage and like to play in make believe if only for a little while because the edges are softer there.
The difference with Eleanor is her brain works in absolutes, so for her, the musician really will change everything for her because he’s going to fall crazy mad in love with her. It’s inevitable. This is why her reaction to things not transpiring the way she expected is so absolute. That’s how her entire character works, and Honeyman’s delivery of her character is so real and unforgiving. Even in this moment when you are begging Eleanor to see reason, she won’t because she can’t. That’s not her character. Honeyman stays true to her character no matter what, and that’s just good writing.
But a character that plays in absolutes requires a subtlety in order to change. Because everything is so definitive for Eleanor, something to the contrary is dismissed. Change then won’t happen. That’s why Raymond and Sammy are so crucial in their deceptively passive natures. If Eleanor is ever to change, she must not realize she’s doing so.
That’s why her external makeover fails in a way a reader wouldn’t expect from the traditional makeover trope. You know the one. Ugly wallflower suddenly becomes beautiful swan. While Eleanor does this on the outside, it doesn’t actually change her. Not the way the traditional makeover story goes.
It takes the stealth maneuverings of Raymond to actually enact change.
This was a brilliant concept employed by Honeyman. Readers know well the makeover trope, and you root for Eleanor to cut her hair and change her clothes. (Velcro shoes? So perfect for this character it made me weep!) But cutting her hair and changing her clothes does nothing for Eleanor because her outsides are not what need help. It’s her insides that need the makeover, but because life has taught her infinite coping skills, she’s grossly detached from reality and what it means to function inside of it.
This contemporary women’s fiction novel is dreadfully mundane and painstakingly real. We’re all Eleanor Oliphant, and that’s why this story has such power to unman us.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine was released in 2017 by Penguin Books. As I mentioned, Gail Honeyman hails from Glasgow, and this is her first book, which was most deservedly listed for many awards and honors. Well done, Gail. We will happily accept another.
Of equal note, Reese Witherspoon’s production company bought the movie rights to Eleanor, but no director or actors have been attached to the production as of yet. Fingers crossed as this would be an interesting opportunity for adaptation.
Have you read Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine?
Tell us what you thought of it in the comments, but please – no spoilers!