Gail Honeyman: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
HarperCollinsPublishers 2018 (2017)
Eleanor is a mass of contradictions: a classics graduate familiar with dead languages but having problems understanding metaphors; sensitive and yet not always displaying ‘common sense’; a creature of habit yet one who can surprise herself by occasionally straying beyond her comfort zone; seemingly happy with her own company but unprepared when she has to admit to herself to being profoundly lonely. Despite her mantra of being ‘completely fine’ she most decidedly is not.
This is a very percipient portrait of a vulnerable young woman living alone in Glasgow, how she goes through crises and what she puts herself through in order to survive. (You know what must follow in these pages when the very first section is headed ‘Good Days’.) It’s also a very funny book for all that it treats with abuse, near-death experiences, anxiety and depression: Eleanor has acquaintances who support and advise her, employers and work colleagues who turn out to be sympathetic and a therapist who understands her, and it’s her reactions to them and the everyday situations she meets that provide the leavening in what could otherwise be a very dark read.
Eleanor is clearly on the autism spectrum, whether a so-called high-functioning individual or one with Asberger syndrome is hard to gauge precisely, but it doesn’t matter: everyone on the spectrum differs from every other autist. The author however disagrees with this assessment: in an interview with The Daily Telegraph she declares that “Eleanor isn’t anywhere on the spectrum. She is the product of nurture, not nature; traumatic events in her childhood have shaped her.”
And yet it is evident to me that the way Eleanor is portrayed shows that both nurture and nature — childhood trauma and being autistic — have combined to make her who she is. The people that Eleanor comes into contact with may find her strange “because,” as Honeyman says, “they don’t have access to her interior thoughts, which do follow a certain logic;” I think that kind of logical reasoning is recognisable to many on the spectrum, not necessarily brought on by the shocking things that happened when she was young and the way she was treated (though these decidedly did impact on her).
The fraught issue of autism aside, Eleanor Oliphant is beautifully crafted and wonderfully uplifting: by having Eleanor recount her own experiences we see how she looked for — still looks for — love and friendship, finding it in unexpected places: not with family or lovers, as one might hope or think, but with work colleagues, with health workers, through random encounters. Living alone she indulges in fantasies about ideal partners, converses on the phone with an abusive mother and shuts down memories of a life she once knew; but when it all comes to a head she has to go through hell before she can confront painful truths. As the author says, she was keen not to portray Eleanor as tragic or a victim: “she has agency and the power to make her own decisions.” In fact she rarely feels sorry for herself, for example referencing a physically and mentally abusive relationship she had whilst a student entirely matter-of-factly.
Despite its contemporary setting, I detected an Austenesque flavour to Eleanor’s narrative, in the way seemingly mundane, trivial details accumulated to paint a picture of a young woman’s life: Eleanor has aspects in common with Fanny Price’s quiet mannerisms, for example, plus Elizabeth Bennet’s desire to marry for love combined with Emma Woodhouse’s delusions about reciprocated love. Perhaps the author most means us to reference Sense and Sensibility, in which the sisters Elinor and Marianne feel the pangs of lost love, Marianne with the dastardly Willoughby, Elinor with the distant Edward Ferrars; in fact we get to hear about a significant Marianne in the pages of Eleanor Oliphant.
Eleanor feels to me a mix of Austen’s Elinor and Marianne, part sensible, part sensitive leading to despair. Her outlook on life is definitely quirky by everyday standards, and yet she has a way of observing others that bring out the real quirkiness, even the irrationality, of ordinary lives. She also sees that many of those ‘ordinary’ people accept her for what she is: people like her quiet work colleague the steadfast Raymond, who proves to be a friend in deed, and his mum, the complete antithesis of Eleanor’s own mum; Sammy who is grateful for her visiting him in hospital after his collapse; Laura, Sammy’s daughter, who offers her ‘mate’s rates’ for a makeover; her therapist Maria, who gently teases a deep secret out of her; her boss Bob, who makes allowances for her and values her contribution at work; and last, but not least, Glen the rescue kitten who accepts Eleanor unequivocally and with unconditional love.
As the author says, there are no real knights in shining armour to rescue Eleanor from herself: “Little gestures enable her to save herself.” The burden of suppressing her victimhood thrown aside, she is able to live more fully — above all, to make connections without being fearful of the pain that may result. The inspiration for the novel came from Honeyman’s realisation that anyone, however young or privileged, can feel unutterably lonely: one thing we can all do to counter loneliness is to engage “in random acts of kindness.” The little kindnesses that Eleanor is shown may help set her on the way to redemption, but only she can take the steps.
And take them she does.
2018 Ultimate Reading Challenge: a bestseller
(2017 winner of a Costa Book Award)