Sense and sensitivity

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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)

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32 thoughts on “Sense and sensitivity

    1. Thanks, Lynden, I found it quite moving myself. The author touts it as a book about loneliness—that was her initial inspiration, she says, but if that’s all the book was about it would be a poor thing indeed. I agree that loneliness is on the rise, for a great many reasons, and that is a great tragedy. But some people are more self-sufficient than others, in the sense of being largely content with their own company, and I would argue that Eleanor falls into this category.

      Why? She’s not the type to be rebuffed by being over-effusive talking to strangers or randomly accosting passers-by or embarrassing acquaintances with long meandering stories. Rather, she’s bookish and adept at crossword puzzles, both rather solitary occupations on the whole. I’m surprised she hadn’t got into social media, a standby for those reluctant to engage face to face, but somehow all that has passed her by.

      Sorry, rather a long meandering reply!

        1. No, I love it! Just the other week I found a Sci Fi author of a trilogy (and a later follow on novel) which I am currently really enjoying. It’s like discovering a lump of gold and the seeing that it came from a big long vein of gold ore!

            1. It’s Dennis E Taylor. His writing in this series (“We are legion”, “For we are Many” and “All these Worlds”) is so relaxed it’s almost jaunty. It’s like living inside the mind of a relaxed happy techno-space-nerd. The way his main protagonist thinks is really similar to how I thought as an older child and young teenager. I find his storytelling to be a lovely antidote to the difficulties of real life. I wouldn’t class any of it as serious or important fiction although he plays around with some real hard science propositions and some ideas about fundamentalist faith which are interesting.

  1. It is interesting to reflect that the author is not always able to give a definitive assessment of their own characters, although the ability of others to do so shows that the writing has been most perceptive.

    1. I totally agree, though I’m surprised she so strongly denies Eleanor’s probable autism: both my wife and myself (one diagnosed autistic, the other self-diagnosed) made this assessment early on, and we’re certainly not the only readers on the spectrum who made this assumption.

  2. It’s an excelllent character study – I wasn’t quite sure whether to read it as autism or trauma recovery myself, since Eleanor clearly shows empathy with certain people and the ability to revise her initial rather harsh assessment of them. As someone who is prone to chronic overthinking and developing my own rather odd rituals for dealing with anxiety I recognised quite a bit of myself in Eleanor. I felt that the first section with its growing fantasy of the perfect romantic partner went on a bit too long, but I liked the ending which avoided cliche and showed Eleanor really learning to revise her prejudices (many of which I shared – I thought Raymond sounded absolutely awful at first!)

    Did you notice that the account of a meeting with social workers from Eleanor’s file (quoted early in the book) used the names of characters from Jane Eyre? This, plus the Eleanor/Marianne, made me wonder if GH was playing games with our literary classics.

    1. I thought I might set the cat among the pigeons with my comments on EO’s possible autism (not that I’m suggesting you’re a pigeon, Ruth!).

      Personally, speaking as someone who is self-diagnosed and with a partner who has been diagnosed, I’d dispute the common belief that those on the spectrum lack empathy, or are unable to change their assessments of others’ characters. But over-thinking and ritualistic behaviour to counter anxiety (which can include addictive behaviours like drinking and drug-taking) is also common among autists. That these also occur in those not on the spectrum doesn’t invalidate the observation, it’s just that these may be just some among a basket of co-morbidities that autists may be prone to.

      I agree the fantasy went on a bit long, but I suppose it was to explain the severity of Eleanor’s subsequent breakdown. Would Eleanor really have fooled herself for so long? I don’t know, but it’s certainly true that obsession can thwart our normally rational thought processes: I like to think, for example, that politicians have our best interests at heart… 😁

      Yes, I noticed those Brontë references in passing but clearly didn’t get round to mentioning them in the review; I think the convincing wording of the report and its reflection of what must be an all too common situation in real life for looked-after children drove the memory out of my mind when I came to write the post.

  3. I’ve read that Eleanor is meant to have PTSD rather than be on the spectrum, it was the latter that came through to me on reading this book, until nearer the end (you know what I mean). Everyone in the staff room was reading it, so I did too. Whilst I did enjoy it, I wasn’t wowed by it, and also wouldn’t really describe it as ‘up lit’ as the press have leapt upon either. Hmmm!

    1. It’s really difficult when a new novel is hyped up (which is why I tend to wait months, even years, before even thinking of tackling it) . Ultimately there can only be a personal response: did I enjoy it or get a lot out of it? Yes, I think so. Is it great literature? I rather doubt it, though it’s a lot better than merely competent.

      The issue of PTSD is important, and there’s no doubt that Eleanor suffered/suffers from it. But it’s a bit chicken and egg, I think: does Eleanor display many autistic traits (literalness, solitary pursuits, addictive behaviours etc) because of her awful childhood experiences, or did her undiagnosed autism lead her to being more vulnerable as a child? It’s probably pointless considering this conundrum, given that Honeyman disputes Eleanor’s autism, but it may be important to bear it in the back of our minds if we are to believe that Eleanor could be more than just a made-up character in a novel designed to raise awareness of loneliness.

  4. A very thoughtful review, Chris! I’ve seen the book doing rounds in the blogs, but your review shows it in a very interesting light.

    1. Thanks, Ola! This is an interesting novel in that it’s a mix of styles, almost of genres: it’s a tragi-comedy and also a mystery; a study of obsession and also of acceptance; a portrait of alienation and also of socialisation, of abuse and of friendship and support.

  5. I loved this too, Chris, and I like your Austen connexion which hadn’t occurred to me but I can see now you point it out. A character who can so clearly and sensibly point out the weirdness of everyday life has to be endearing. The abusive mother scenario was very well-handled too.

    1. There’s a lot of weirdness going on in the world right now, and we need the Eleanors of today to point it all out, don’t we. The abusive mother is also of a type, the Critical Parent, which has damaged so many sensitive souls and stunted their psychological growth; I remember trying so hard not to be one of those, but without drifting into the laissez-faire mould.

      Ruth (‘mefinx’) above also pointed out the passing Brontë allusions, which makes me wonder what other literary allusions are embedded in the text!

  6. piotrek

    Beautiful review of a book that clearly deserves my interest. Please, stop distracting me with non-genre stuff 😉 As someone who meets some of the criteria (of this particular spectrum), I’m always very moved by such protagonists, I’ll keep this title in mind 🙂

    1. OK, just for you, after October I’ll be just reviewing SFF/speculative fic! At the moment I’m about two-thirds through The Turn of the Screw (in time for Halloween) and a E Nesbit children’s book from 1904, just so you can avert your eyes from non-genre fiction…

      Seriously, I think you’d like this, as I say, a bit of cross genre influences and a very sympathetic protagonist can’t be all bad, can it? 🙂

      1. piotrek

        Oh, it is good, that’s why it’s a tempting distraction 😉

        Incidentally, I’m reading Nesbit to my nieces these days, we’re at book three and they like it a lot!

        1. I was pleased to find a used copy of Nesbit’s The New Treasure Seekers not so long ago, having read and reviewed the first two titles, and it’s been magical revisiting the Bastable siblings and their myriad well-intentioned scrapes!

          Can I congratulate you on introducing this author to your nieces, so many readers start or stop with either The Railway Children or Five Children and It when there are so many others to explore. Which Nesbit book are they enjoying? The Psammead/Phoenix series or the Bastables? Or another series I’ve not come across yet?

          1. piotrek

            Thank you! We’ve read “Five Children and It” and “The Phoenix and the Carpet”, and that’s it, actually, we just read the first one in two parts from two different editions 😉 Most of it is easily available in translation, so we might explore further in the future 🙂

            1. The next in that series is The Story of the Amulet (which I’ve yet to review), an enjoyable if overly episodic tale and in places a tad politically incorrect for modern tastes.

              And then there is Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders which I should have read by now and which has had laudatory reviews: it touches on what happened to the youngsters in the turmoil of the Great War.

            2. piotrek

              My sister is very supportive of my efforts ro broaden their horizons,but she also said I’ll have to participate in any therapy costs that might result from that 😉

  7. Pingback: Winding Up the Week #41 – Book Jotter

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