Suggested as a book for the PopSugar 2020 Reading Challenge prompt of a character in their 20’s (although I’m pretty sure she’s only briefly in her 20’s, as she mentions that she recently turned 30, but whatever, I’m counting it anyway…), Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (Pamela Dorman Books, 2017) has been a book I’ve wanted to read for ages. It never appeared at the right time for me, though; whenever I’d see it, I would be so far behind in my reading that taking it home seemed foolish, but I was lucky enough to grab it on my last trip to the library, making this my very last library read until they reopen. I have plenty to read here, and the library is still open for ebooks, but still…it feels sad.
Eleanor Oliphant’s life barely qualifies as an existence. She goes to work, she comes home, she eats, she sleeps, she talks to her mother on the phone. And that’s it. No friends, no visitors to her apartment other than the social worker who comes every six months to check up on her. Other people’s behavior frequently baffles her, she can’t relate to her coworkers, and she doesn’t seem to understand that they’re mocking her whenever they speak to her. But the wheels of change are set in motion when Eleanor and Raymond, a coworker, help to save an elderly man who’s collapsed in the street, and, unrelated, Eleanor meets the man of her dreams.
Along with striking up something resembling a friendship with Raymond, Eleanor begins a regime of self-improvement designed to make herself acceptable to the musician she’s developed a crush on. Hair, skin, nails, better clothes, all of this is tackled methodically as she learns the twists and turns of friendship with and through Raymond, and the people she meets because of him. And when life goes wrong and things get difficult, Eleanor comes to understand what friendship truly is and can mean, and what it means to reach out to another human being.
This is a lovely book that’s occasionally hard to read. Eleanor doesn’t seem to understand that her coworkers are often making fun of her when they bother to talk to her at all, and those scenes are painful for any reader with compassion and a sense of decency. Her social awkwardness and extremely literal way of thinking cause her to speak bluntly, offend people without being unaware of it, and often act inappropriately in social situations. There’s never a mention of Eleanor having a diagnosis of any sorts, so whether her behavior is from a condition such as autism or due to trauma and emotional starvation as a child remains unknown. It’s tragic, but despite her inability to respond properly in so many situations, Eleanor is a strong, deep character. The fact that she’s survived this long and gotten this far in life, despite all that she’s suffered (obvious content warnings here: there are mentions of child abuse, sexual assault and rape, several mentions of death, physical and emotional abuse, and bullying behavior from adults), is remarkable, and Ms. Honeyman has created a character that readers will be desperate to see succeed.
Watching Eleanor’s growth over the course of the book was exactly the kind of hopeful I needed at this point. We’re doing okay here, managing everything okay, but it’s still not easy, and reading along as Eleanor tried new things and threw herself into new experiences felt satisfying (even though she was doing them for the wrong reasons. I didn’t enjoy that part, and kept hoping that she would reach that point where she was doing things for herself, but it was fun to see how she experienced things such as a professional hair cut and a trip to the nail salon for the first time), especially since all of our lives are on hold at the moment. Reading about someone who was brave enough to actually start living, after a lifetime of…not…felt…like a relief. It’s no substitute for life itself, but when it’s what you can have at the moment, it’s enough.
What a strong debut novel. I don’t know what Ms. Honeyman has next up her sleeve, but my goodness, what a way to burst onto the fiction scene!