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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

January 15, 2019

Eleanor Oliphant, in Gail Honeyman’s novel Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, initially reminded me a little of the character Olive Kitteridge in the stories by Elizabeth Strout. She’s a strong, no-nonsense, uncompromising first-person narrator. It would be hard to describe her as “naive,” but there are things she narrates that she doesn’t fully understand. I loved her horrified reaction to getting a “Hollywood” bikini wax. When she sees what has been done to her, she says “the man in whom I am interested is a normal adult man. He will enjoy sexual relations with a normal adult woman. Are you trying to imply that he’s some sort of pedophile?”

Soon, however, it becomes clear that Eleanor has more going on than just acting as a stubbornly independent-minded woman. She says that her goal is “successful camouflage as a human woman.” She does occasionally sound like some kind of space alien visiting earth: “If someone asks you how you are, you are meant to say FINE. You are not meant to say that you cried yourself to sleep last night because you hadn’t spoken to another person for two consecutive days. FINE is what you say.”

Eleanor’s relationship with her mother is obviously dysfunctional, as all she does is accept verbal abuse from her. It’s fun to see her make a friend from work, Raymond, and get a little more involved with the lives of the people around her. Raymond’s mother, in particular, seems to be a revelation to Eleanor:
“Mrs. Gibbons regaled us with tales of her neighbors’ various eccentricities and illnesses, along with updates on the activities of their extended family, which seemed to be of as little relevance to Raymond as they were to me, judging by his expression. He teased his mother frequently and affectionately, and she responded with mock annoyance, gently slapping him on the arm or chiding him for his rudeness. I was warm and full and comfortable in a way I couldn’t remember feeling before.”

The aspect of the plot that seems most forced into place to show the development of Eleanor’s character is a chance meeting for Eleanor and Raymond with a man on the street who needs hospital care. They “save” him and then develop a relationship with his family.

There are occasional juxtapositions of Eleanor’s matter-of-fact tone with hints of the horrors that she has experienced, horrors that are not fully revealed until the end of the novel:
“I would have to go out again later to get my vodka. Why couldn’t you just purchase it in the same way that you bought, say milk—to wit, at any shop at any time that it was open? Ridiculous. I suppose it’s to ensure that alcoholics are protected from themselves for at least a few hours each day; although rationally, that makes no sense. If I were chemically and psychologically addicted to alcohol, I’d ensure I had a ready supply to hand at all times, buying in bulk and stockpiling. It was an illogical law; really, what was the difference between buying vodka at ten past nine in the morning and at ten past ten?
Vodka is, for me, merely a household necessity, like a loaf of bread or a packet of tea. The very best thing about it is that it helps me to sleep. Sometimes, when night comes, I lie there in the darkness and I can’t prevent myself remembering: fear, and pressure, but mostly fear….”

Her matter-of-fact tone often reveals much more than she is aware of. After she has made a suicide attempt, Eleanor is surprised that Raymond continues to visit her:
“It was surprising that he should bother with me, especially given the unpleasant circumstances in which he’d found me after the concert. Whenever I’d been sad or upset before, the relevant people in my life would simply call my social worker and I’d be moved somewhere else. Raymond hadn’t phoned anyone or asked an outside agency to intervene. He’d elected to look after me himself. I’d been pondering this, and concluded that there must be some people for whom difficult behavior wasn’t a reason to end their relationship with you. If they liked you—and, I remembered, Raymond and I had agreed that we were pals now—then, it seemed, they were prepared to maintain contact, even if you were sad, or upset, or behaving in very challenging ways. This was something of a revelation.”

One of the most touching scenes in the novel is when Raymond brings Eleanor a stray cat that needs looking after. We know and have guessed enough about what happened to Eleanor, by this time, to be extremely affected by the description of the circumstances of the cat’s rescue and Eleanor’s reaction to her behavior: “the cat squirmed in my arms and landed on the carpet with a heavy thump. She strolled over to the litter tray, squatted down and urinated loudly, maintaining extremely assertive eye contact with me throughout. After the deluge, she lazily kicked over the traces with her back legs, scattering litter all over my freshly cleaned floor.
A woman who knew her own mind and scorned the conventions of polite society. We were going to get along just fine.”

In the end, Eleanor is well on the way to being “completely fine,” and we see that making a single friend was the beginning of her uncompromising triumph over the circumstances of her past.


8 Comments leave one →
  1. January 15, 2019 4:37 pm

    I really liked this book and the character of Eleanor even though someone ruined the ending for me while I was reading it.

    • January 15, 2019 8:15 pm

      It seems like it might be best to read the whole book at one sitting, so the details can build. Few people will be surprised by the ending, but you don’t want to get there too soon.

  2. magpiemusing permalink
    January 15, 2019 4:41 pm

    Ah! I’m looking forward to reading this.

  3. January 16, 2019 7:26 am

    I enjoyed this also.

  4. January 19, 2019 10:34 pm

    I haven’t heard of this book before your review. I’m adding it to my tbr list.

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