Book Review: “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant is what we would politely describe as quirky. She lives a fairly isolated lifestyle, seeing no friends or relatives. She lives alone in a flat where she was placed by Social Services after leaving the care system. She is a creature of habit, wearing identical clothes each day, and following habitual daily and weekly routines. She works, in the accounts department of a design company, but her lowly position seems out of kilter with her high intelligence. There is nothing especially remarkable about her quirkiness (apart from the fact that she drinks two bottles of vodka every weekend), but her habits mark her out from the usual crowd. In particular she eschews social interaction, is cool, often hostile, to her co-workers, looking down on them, never wears make up or gets her hair cut. She appears to others as someone who doesn’t make an effort, but through Eleanor’s eyes we observe some of the absurdities of ‘normal’ life and there are some real laugh-out-loud moments, for example, when Eleanor goes for a makeover at the department store.

Eleanor OliphantEleanor communicates poorly with others, being rather too literal and pedantic for most people to tolerate and is therefore unable to form effective relationships.  At first, she is not an easy character to love, except that we as readers know a couple of things about her that her workmates do not, and which make us more sympathetic to her. Firstly, we know she drinks herself into oblivion at the weekends: as a reader we are bound to ask what she is trying to escape from. Second, there is Eleanor’s mother, with whom she speaks every Wednesday evening; “Mummy” is controlling, manipulative, cruel, nasty. Eleanor is an adult and yet there is something disturbing about the way she always refers to her parent as a child would (never ‘Mum’ or ‘my mother’). The fact that Eleanor also receives regular monitoring visits from social workers tells us that there is something dark in Eleanor’s past that has contributed to her present quirkiness, but we are not told what.

Two incidents in Eleanor’s life set off a cascade of events that will alter her life immeasurably. First, she encounters and develops a teenage-like crush on a musician. He is the lead singer in a band, well-known in the Glasgow area, lives locally and Eleanor has a remote connection with him as he attended school with a work colleague’s brother. Eleanor decides that the musician is the one she wants to spend the rest of her life with. She fantasises about a romance with him and ultimately marriage. Emboldened by conversations with Mummy, who is all in favour of “the project” (whilst also questioning Eleanor’s worth), she tasks herself with contriving to meet him, including visiting his apartment block, and sets about buying new clothes and improving her appearance, to bring herself up to the standard she anticipates he would expect from a partner.

The second incident is the collapse of an elderly man in the street. The old man is immediately attended to by Raymond, not a co-worker but someone she recognises as working in the same building, and he involves Eleanor and commands her help. Between them, Eleanor and Raymond manage to give the man first aid and call an ambulance. After this, Raymond draws Eleanor into an unplanned friendship. It doesn’t seem to be something that either of them is seeking, particularly. Indeed at first Eleanor is very cool towards Raymond, looking down upon his smoking, his eating habits, his text-speak and what she sees as his lazy dressing habits. But he is warm and patient with her and the friendship evolves. Through Raymond, Eleanor gets a glimpse of what ‘normal’ life and ‘normal’ family relationships can be, with all their faults.

The action takes place over a few months and the pace is measured and authentic. It is ultimately a novel about mental illness, triggered by trauma in Eleanor’s case, and as the story unfolds, and we learn more about Eleanor’s past, so her present, tightly ordered life, held together so flimsily by a set of rigid habits, begins to fall apart. This unravelling may be painful for some readers. The novel echoes that tendency we all have to say we’re ‘fine’ even when we’re not, and Eleanor learns, the hard way, what ‘fine’ means, and how to use that word honestly on her path to healing. There are some dark moments but there is also humour, particularly in the drawing of Eleanor’s character. I found myself laughing both with her and at her, which was, I must confess uncomfortable in the context of later revelations, and caused me to reflect on how we as a society react to those who do not present with an ‘average’ or ‘easily-fit-innable’ personality.

Gail honeymanThis is Gail Honeyman’s first novel and it is a stunning achievement. A thoroughly enjoyable read. In an era where poor mental health, social isolation and dysfunctional relationships seem to have reached epidemic proportions, this novel is both an examination of one person’s particular circumstances and an antidote. Highly recommended.

Have you read this book? What did you think?

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Thoughts on unhappiness

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My children and I are privileged. On every level. There is no doubt about it. Because we have a roof over our heads that we can afford to pay for, because we know where not just the next meal, but the one after that and the one after that are coming from, and because we can turn the heating up when there’s an unexpected cold snap, we are more privileged than many. And I don’t just mean those children fleeing war or who have lost their families, but many in our country, our city, or our town. And yet. And yet.

I read somewhere once that you are only as happy as your unhappiest child. And just now I have an unhappy child. A child who feels that nothing is going right for them, who feels there is pressure, who struggles sometimes in their social network. A child. One who is too young for this. A child who says that sometimes life is so hard they wish they could just hide away from it all. So no matter how good my life, no matter how well my other children are or are doing, I too am unhappy. I’d go through the pain of childbirth every day to take that pain away.

I was lucky to be a relatively successful child. I sailed through most things. I was disliked by some of the nastier kids in the neighbourhood, but I managed to avoid them, mostly. I thank my lucky stars I wasn’t bullied because I was a prime target for it (nice, timid, studious, spectacle-wearing), but I came through school largely unscathed. It was in young adulthood that the realities of the world hit me. When I realised that, hmm, life was tough. That it wasn’t all going to be plain sailing. That life wasn’t fair. And I was powerless to do anything about much of life’s injustice. It was only later I learned all I could do about it was just to be the best that I could be.

Mental nd emotional wellbeing have been a lifelong challenge for me, as for many people I know (most?). I admire and am fascinated by people who have a natural positive outlook, that sunny disposition, and I wish I knew how to get it. No. I wish I knew how to get it for my child. My question is, is it better for children to learn when they’re young that life is not fair and you just have to make the best of it? Does disappointment and heartache when you’re young help to build resilience when you’re older? I sometimes wonder whether a bit of disappointment, a reality check, when I was a kid, might have helped me cope better with it in adulthood. But maybe not.

More recently, I’ve learned how focusing on gratitude can help to build resilience and a positive mindset, so I practice this every day. And I know I have so much to be grateful for. Just recently I heard a single mother on the radio talking about the pain of having to put her severely disabled 12-year old into care because she could no longer cope. And, again, I thank my lucky stars, my guardian angels, or whatever force in the world is out there looking after me and mine, that I have a healthy, stable family. That said, the least empathic thing you can say to someone who is feeling low is to invite them to think of all the people who are worse off than they are.

I also read somewhere once that you get the children you need; maybe that divine force out there has gifted my children to me because I have within me the love to support and care for them, when unhappiness strikes. But today I feel ill-equipped and today I feel as unhappy as my unhappiest child.

 “Happiness, not in another place but this place, not for another hour but this hour”

As ever, I look to my books for help. The above quote from Walt Whitman is a call to embrace joy in the here and now, and is one of the techniques for being happy listed in a little volume I picked up in a bargain bookshop a while ago. A little book I keep to hand for times like this – How to be Happy by Anna Barnes.

I don’t think Whitman will mean much to my child at this point, but perhaps my job as a parent is to try and pass on some of my own hard-earned resilience to my child, who is still maturing, still growing, still learning.