Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine –should you read it?

Gail Honeyman’s debut novel, HarperCollins 2017

There’s so much I want to say about this book and can’t without ruining it for you with spoilers. It always speaks volumes about a book when you just want to shout about it and detail how and why it’s so wonderful to everyone you know.

I read it because my boss leant it to me. She gave it to me on Thursday and I didn’t start reading it until Sunday. Foolish. For the next three nights I was awake reading it until 3am, and blamed my boss for my insomnia and consequent work grogginess.

I wasn’t expecting this, as the premise didn’t sound that compelling to me: ‘Eleanor Oliphant has learned how to survive – but not how to live,’ runs the media strapline. Or, as my boss put it, ‘a very isolated young woman changes and starts to connect with the people around her’.

So, it doesn’t sound like it’s going to be a James Patterson level page-turner… but it is. And (unlike Patterson) it’s also sublimely written.

On some level, don’t many of us feel that we are ‘surviving’ but never quite managing to ‘live’? Or at least, not to live how we hoped to. Not to get as much out of life as we once expected.

If we have even a shred of this in ourselves, we immediately bond with Eleanor, the awkward, overly formal, oddball heroine of this story. Exploring how someone becomes this isolated oddball is one of the reasons Honeyman decided to write this novel, and it’s a fascinating theme: how we see merely the surface of people, sometimes easy to mock, and have no clue what they might have come through to be standing where they are today.

Another facet of this book’s genius is the perspective we get through Eleanor’s eyes. It’s a first person narrative and, like the best first person narrators, Eleanor notices everything, but doesn’t always understand it. So the disparity between her reporting events, which she often can’t fully make sense of, and our understanding of those events, makes for many laugh out loud moments.

An example: the reactions of her new good friend Raymond every time she mentions the man she’s obsessing about. We understand what his reactions mean, and this delights us, but Eleanor puts them down to clumsiness, or simply doesn’t analyse them at all. Part of Honeyman’s skill is she makes the reader feel clever in being able to put two and two together in a way her shrewd but damaged heroine can’t. 'Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine' will make you laugh a lot, but never at its heroine.

As for Honeyman's characters, I was in love with both the main characters by the end of the story, and I don’t see how anyone could resist them.

The language is a feat of understated brilliance; never pretentious, always easy to read yet soaring into poetry at moments of high emotion. Eleanor’s mother’s voice on the phone is one of the most darkly marvellous fictional voices I’ve read.

Verdict: A beautiful debut. Like much of the best literature, this book is really about kindness. The changes kindness can bring. Learning to accept kindness and be kind to others, and to yourself as an agent of transformation.

Should you: Absolutely yes!

Sometimes hype is not warranted. In this case, it is. It’s just been shortlisted for the Costa debut novel award, and Reese Witherspoon’s company has bought the film rights. Quite right too!

But, as I warned the work colleague who immediately ran off with my boss’s copy of the book after me: for heaven’s sake, start it at the beginning of a long weekend, and don’t expect to do anything else until it’s done.

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