Book Club Review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – February 2019

Most of us interact with the world through various filters learned over the course of our lives. We make automatic adjustments as we recognize clues from these filters – “raining cats and dogs”, “fit as a fiddle”, “sharp as a tack” – they all are metaphors used to emphasize a happening or quality.  We recognize sarcasm, irony, and satire.  We converse with people and instinctively understand how facial expressions can change the meaning of their words.  But what if this recognition was not there?  How would that change our ability to walk through life?  In a well written novel, author Gail Honeyman gave Zion’s readers a window into such a life.

The title character of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is a 31 year-old woman, possibly autistic but high functioning with little to no social skills, a very literal interpretation of the world, a (she thinks) healthy disdain for her co-workers, and a taste for 2 liters of cheap vodka which she swills from Friday evening until Sunday evening to get through the weekends.  She bears facial scars from a mysterious fire that occurred early in her life and thinks having her basic needs met during foster care was all she deserved.  After foster care, Eleanor fell into a relationship with a man who beat her and used her.  Her conversations with her mother show an abusive woman who belittles and denigrates her daughter at every turn.   In short, Eleanor is a lonely, tortured, traumatized soul with no idea how to change.

Then, at 31, Eleanor develops her first crush on a local musician and realizes she must adapt in order to fit into his imagined world.   Hair, clothes, and make-up are now of some interest to her, and how she dips her toes (and other parts of her anatomy) into the world of fashion are hilarious.  When her office computer develops issues, she meets a new IT guy, Raymond.  Raymond sees beyond her scars and actually talks to her as an equal, unlike her co-workers who bond over making her an outsider.  Although a techie nerd himself, Raymond does have a normal relationship with the world and gives Eleanor clues and hints about appropriate behavior.  When Eleanor and Raymond help Sammy, an older gentleman who collapses in the street, Eleanor finds her mechanized, rigid schedule now has to make room for Sammy and his family in addition to Raymond.  She begins to glean an understanding of family relationships, but is still sure that the musician will be her one true love.

When that romantic bubble bursts due to Eleanor witnessing crude behavior by the musician in a nightclub, she has no foundation to fall back on.  She drowns herself in vodka for a weekend, seeing no point in her own life.  When she doesn’t appear at work, Raymond discovers her curled up in her apartment.  He cleans her and the apartment up, dries her out, and checks in to be sure she is following orders to get appropriate medical help while on leave from work.  Surprisingly, the psychologist she begins seeing helps Eleanor to pull out the memories she has buried and begin to make sense of them and herself.  It is a painful journey with a couple of twists that surprised our readers immensely and made us realize exactly what horrible burdens this young woman was struggling under and through.  The journey allows Eleanor to see value in herself and in life.

As a debut novel, this was a grand slam!  The author’s portrayal of a social misfit was spot on.  Her literal interpretations and the humorous results from them (humorous to readers, not Eleanor) grabbed our interest.   One reader was reminded of the Amelia Bedelia books of our childhood as Amelia also had a literal view of the world.  We could remember our first crushes and relate to Eleanor’s.  As our knowledge of her traumatic childhood deepened, we could understand that Eleanor probably had post-traumatic stress syndrome and was self-medicating with alcohol.  Some of our members had professional experience with Children and Youth and foster care; they knew that children in that system are often socially damaged.  From age four, you acquire social skills from peers.  Without those skills, you suffer.  Most people are not fortunate enough to meet a Raymond at a later stage in their lives.  The abuse Eleanor suffered at her mother’s hands was also unfortunately too real, and similar accounts can be found in headlines on a weekly basis.  Even if parents request help, sometimes the system fails them.

While our readers found the psychologist’s appearance and office raised our eyebrows a bit (as one reader said, it almost seemed to be a case of “it takes one social misfit to know another one”), the counseling sessions were a very accurate depiction of the professional relationship.  We found layers of things happening in this novel.  What was Raymond’s motivation to stick around?  Did he act out of pity or recognize another outcast?  Eleanor finds allies in unexpected places like the dress shop and make-up counter.  Gradually, she is redefining her standard response to the throw-away question “How are you?”.  Eleanor has recognized that “Fine” is the accepted response and has reasoned that she is completely fine.  But by whose definition?  Certainly, she is not fine by our standards.  Processing her abuse and adjusting can be the journey of a lifetime.  And yet, as the novel progresses, we readers see her moving in that direction.  We watch her relationship with co-workers change as she changes.  We see her learning, adapting, reaching out, until by the end of the book, she is well on her way to completely fine.  In some respects, this novel could be seen as  a fairy tale with a Cinderella in the middle of it, but Ms. Honeyman avoids the clichés.  We particularly appreciated that Eleanor does NOT run off with the prince at the end.  Her character has grown brick by brick through the course of the book.  She stands on her own two feet, drawing strength from everything that happened, happy to have Raymond as a friend.  Where they go down the road is an open question, but our readers agreed that their story, so far, was completely fine.  Nine of our readers gave Ms. Honeyman’s book one thumb up, and three gave it two thumbs up.  We look forward to her next endeavor.  Next month, we explore Educated by Tara Westover, a memoir of one woman’s quest for knowledge.  Happy reading!