Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is a strange (and strangely compelling) book.
If you look up reviews, you’ll find strong feelings on both sides. Those who love it, who adore it completely.
Those who hate it, well… let’s just say they seem to find creative ways to say how much they loathe the main character.
I was genuinely curious which side of the coin I would land on with what (most) agreed was a remarkable debut novel by Gail Honeyman.
And while I can understand a lot of the arguments for why Eleanor herself is just so unlikeable you don’t want to root for her, I personally couldn’t help cheering her on.
Unique Writing Style Telling a Heart Wrenching Story
Meet Eleanor Oliphant.
One reason it definitely is hard to like Eleanor is just how uncompromising she is. Gail Honeyman writes her as an emotionally stunted person who struggles with social interactions. Because of the way she was raised, she has almost no empathy for other people.
The plot does make clear a lot of the reasons for that later on. But for a large part of the book, she is just this weird, girl-woman who at 30 years old lacks appropriate social skills and barely knows how to take care of herself beyond keeping herself alive.
You would think this would make you feel sorry for her, but with her explicit and judgemental inner monologue going on all the time it’s really hard to feel any sympathy in the beginning.
The description of the book on Goodreads is pretty excellent for this one: “No one ever told Eleanor life should be better than just fine.” That’s really what her emotional arc is about.
Through making her first friend Raymond, the IT guy in the office. Through developing a crush and developing a whole internal love story about a local musician. Through bonding with Raymond when they rescue an elderly gentleman when he collapses in front of them.
Eleanor’s rigid life is forced to yield just enough to let a little light into her childhood trauma with Mummy and for her to realize she deserves more than just frozen food and drinking herself to sleep at night.
As a first-time novelist, Gail Honeyman does an amazing job of making her storytelling style so interesting that you don’t really care if you don’t like the main character. You need to know what happens to her anyway. And if you hang on long enough, she explains her eccentricities to the point you do actually start to like Eleanor, just a little bit. This comes just about the time Eleanor starts to like herself too.
Overall, this original literary creation is an expertly crafted and uniquely told story. It follows an irresistible journey that had me rushing to the end to see just where this story could possibly be going (and boy is it a shocker of a tragic backstory).
If you can get past your initial discomfort and keep reading, this is a brilliant book that deserves all the popularity and awards it has received (including becoming a New York Times Bestseller and winning the British book awards Book of the Year).
If you are looking for your next book club read, this is a great choice. It even made it as a Reese Witherspoon Book Club pick! Here is a list of 15 Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine book club questions to get a great discussion started.
What does Eleanor Oliphant look like?
She is described a number of times, but this is the most complete quote describing what she looks like.
“There I was: Eleanor Oliphant. Long, straight, light brown hair that runs all the way down to my waist, pale skin, my face a scarred palimpsest of fire. A nose that’s too small and eyes that are too big. Ears: unexceptional. Around average height, approximately average weight. I aspire to average…”Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman
If you’re wondering “what does palimpsest mean” (and I know I had to look it up), it’s defined as “a manuscript or piece of writing material on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing but of which traces remain.”
It can also mean “something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form”, which is probably the usage Gail Honeyman was going for here.
Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine Summary (Spoilers!)
Eleanor Oliphant is an ordinary heroine who lives out her timetabled life with little fuss.
She is one of those people whose extreme social awkwardness has her leading a life of isolation.
She does her 9 to 5 job, has her weekly phone chats with Mummy, picks up her bottles of vodka and a Tesco frozen pizza meal deal on Friday night, and just exists through the weekend until she can start it all over again Monday morning.
It’s a lonely life, but one she doesn’t seem to mind.
All this changes when her office hires (in her opinion) an unhygienic IT guy who actually treats her like a human being. A chance encounter occurs when they meet an old man, Sammy, when he collapses on the crosswalk in front of them when leaving the office.
Raymond’s big heart shows Eleanor the proper response to this kind of crisis, and the experience leads them to bond as a kind of tentative friends.
Meanwhile, Eleanor is obsessed with local musician Johnnie Lomond who she saw and fell in love with when he appeared on stage. He seems the key to making her less of an awkward person and is someone who will surely see past her unusual appearance and finally cherish her the way she deserves.
By following him on social media, she begins her research into what he likes and how they can next meet. She shares her project on her weekly phone chat with Mummy, who is bitingly negative and held somewhere “bad”, though it’s not specified where.
She has her own visit with a social worker who makes sure she is continuing to do well since her time in foster care. We learn something pretty horrific happened with Mummy, but are not told what…
Raymond continues to see past Eleanor’s deadpan weirdness to her unconscious wit as they start to attend functions together for Sammy, like celebrating his release from the hospital.
Eleanor uses these occasions to practice for when she will be a woman about town with the musician and buys new clothes and makeup.
Things come to a head when she attends another concert by the musician, thinking this will be the time they will finally meet. It hits her as she stands in the audience just how much she has built this relationship up in her head.
He is not special, and not about to rescue her and keep her from being one of those people living lives of isolation and desperation.
She spirals into a drunken depression where she contemplates ending her life. Raymond finds her after her missing several days of work, and gently nurses her back to health. He encourages her to start therapy to work on her mental health issues, which she does.
He also brings her a cat, a friendship that continues her healing journey.
Through therapy, she accesses suppressed memories of the fire that left her scarred and in foster care. We learn that not only did Eleanor have a little sister, Marianne, who died in the fire she survived, but Mummy was also the one who set the fire.
Intending to kill her children, in her manic state she accidentally died as well.
Partially because of her warped and traumatic childhood, Eleanor’s survival has been a source of guilt to her since she was 10 years old. Through these revelations, she starts to heal.
She also says goodbye to Mummy, who she has continued to talk to in her mind all these years.
The end of the book leaves you feeling hopeful for Eleanor’s future, with a possible future romance implied between Raymond and Eleanor.
Is Eleanor Oliphant Being Made Into a Movie?
Yes, this book will soon be a major motion picture!
Just recently, the director for the planned film adaptation was announced to be Harry Brabeer. This is the same man who directed Fleabag, another story about an awkward, sometimes unlikable, definitely surprising heroine.
How incredible Fleabag ended up being makes me very excited for the movie of this book.
Harry Brabeer has also been behind other books turned into scripts for film and television and was involved with both the adaptation of Killing Eve and Netlix’s Enola Holmes.
The film is being produced by MGM, but no more information about the timing or cast has been announced just yet.
Looking to make reading a more regular thing? Why not start a book club! Check out my article on How to Form a Book Club for tips on creating the ideal club for your lifestyle.
Did you read Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine? What did you think? Leave me a comment below about how much you did (or didn’t) like it!