‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ by Gail Honeyman was published in 2017. In an interview to Penguin Random House, the debutant author Gail Honeyman said the idea for the book came to her while reading an article about a young woman who had articulated her experience of living alone in a big city. Hence the theme of a female protagonist combating ‘loneliness’.
This book made me cry a bucket-full, laugh my heart out and cringe at other moments. Half-way through the book, I was in love with Gail Honeyman’s writing style, the intriguing characters and the mystery unfolding. But, in the end, Eleanor Oliphant was completely fine without being brilliant. The reason, I think, it left me at a low was for its adherence to the clichéd climax.
As the title goes, ‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ is about the thirty-year-old Eleanor with poor social skills and certain psychological issues, living alone in Glasgow with an invisible existence. She has a horrible mother to cope with, similar to the witch acting as Rapunzel’s mother in Tangled. Though in the book, you only hear her mother’s voice over every Wednesday evening telephone call. ‘Mummy’ brings out the worst in Eleanor with her mean conversations, something that has always been the usual behaviour.
‘Mummy has always told me that I am ugly, freakish, vile. She’s done so from my earliest years, even before I acquired my scars.’
A fire accident during Eleanor’s childhood had left her with a scarred face. The faint memory of this incident shields the mystery of Eleanor’s loneliness and social awkwardness.
Since the age of ten, Eleanor moved from one foster home to another. By the age of seventeen, she got a place at the university and the council gave her a flat to live in. Post this; the state looked after Eleanor through six-monthly social service visits to record her progress.
After the university and a bad phase with a violent boyfriend, Eleanor started as an Accounts staff at Bob’s office. Eleanor’s professional life led her into a routine, to work five days a week then grocery shopping plus sleep and television over the weekend. And, the troubled nights called for vodka. Her sole companion in life was Polly the houseplant who survived the fire and the many changes in Eleanor’s residence.
Why is Eleanor unable to ‘camouflage’ herself into society? Yes, I loved the term ‘camouflage’ used by Gail Honeyman in this regard. Firstly, Eleanor is not physically attractive and secondly, she lacks the skills to talk in a socially acceptable way. Though, Eleanor had always been a good student, a well-read woman and professionally astute. It is heartbreaking on how the other employees in office mock Eleanor and she is always on her guard against stares or comments. The glimmer of hope for Eleanor arrives in the form of a local singer whom she attributes as her soul mate.
‘There are scars on my heart, just as thick, as disfiguring as those on my face. I know they’re there. I hope some undamaged tissue remains, a patch through which love can come in and flow out. I hope.’
It may seem childish that a thirty-year-old woman gets overwhelmed over a man and goes through a phase of teenage crush. Here I felt, how much the ‘Cinderella’ story is to be blamed for this delusional dream inside girls. Cinderella never asked the fairy Godmother to give her the strength to fight the stepmother and live independently. She wished for one dance with the prince to change her life. Exactly, how Eleanor felt – a glance from her prince charming and her life will change. And, in the modern world, the magic wand could be replaced by beauty salons and the clothing stores.
A make-over is also the tool by which Gail Honeyman wants to prove how easy it is to get social acceptance.
‘Was this how it worked, then, successful, social integration? Was it that simple? Wear some lipstick, go to the hairdressers and alternate the clothes you wear? Someone ought to write a book, or at least an explanatory pamphlet, and pass this information on.’
When Gail Honeyman brought out Jane Eyre as Eleanor’s staple read on depressing evenings, I realized a parallel. Couldn’t Eleanor Oliphant be the modern reinterpretation of Jane Eyre? One funny little personal thing, this book is presented to Eleanor for perfect attendance by the school and my copy of Jane Eyre is also a present from the School.
But Jane Eyre never needed to change. Here, Gail Honeyman betrays us and changes Eleanor.
Many-a-times, you wonder with the inconsistencies in Eleanor’s character. There are times she can pull herself perfectly well, analyse things and place herself. And, at other times, just poke her head into embarrassment. Apart from the local singer, the only spark of social life in Eleanor’s life is the presence of Raymond, a colleague from the office.
‘My first pal! Granted, he was a poorly turned out computer repair man with a range of unfortunate social habits, but still – pals!’
The humorous bits will have you in splits. Especially, the times, Eleanor tries to reach out to transform herself physically. Her lack of understanding in fashion and make-up put up a great show.
‘She had tried to steer me towards vertiginous heels again – why are these people so incredibly keen on crippling their female customers? I began to wonder if cobblers and chiropractors had established some fiendish cartel.’
Eleanor decides that the simple formula of not looking anywhere like a normal human woman is what makes you socially acceptable and it is hilarious.
‘I look like a small Madagascan primate, or perhaps a North American raccoon,’ I said. ‘It’s charming!’
One big question, is the book about mental illness? It is, but it is also about many aspects of human relations in the modern world. The book talks about the prejudices we have against certain social and physical attributes without any understanding of a person’s background. Why are we too quick to pass our judgments? And, not just other people but Eleanor herself has this trait. She cannot understand the lack of hygiene or a non-courteous response from a staff.
A child needs emotional support and love above the necessities of food, clothing and shelter. Eleanor considers herself fortunate to have got everything in a world where millions of children live in deprivation. But, isn’t this the exact reason what deteriorated Eleanor’s capability as a competent woman.
Apart from the abusive mother, Gail Honeyman tries to explore the role of foster parents, child services and a psychologist. Eleanor is left with hardly any faith in these counseling options and just craves for someone to put an arm around her. However, there is a section when she visits a psychologist. The professionalism of the psychologist and the emotional anguish of Eleanor is just heartbreaking. What is better – to keep one’s fears hidden somewhere deep or to discover them without knowing the coping mechanism? After a session with the psychologist, when Eleanor is emotionally shattered, the appointed time is over and then, she is led out.
‘How could one human being see another so obviously in pain, a pain she had deliberately drawn out and worried away at, and then push her out into the street and leave her to cope with it alone?’
The writing compels you to be with Eleanor, help her and give her a big warm hug. I think it had been long since I felt this level of empathy for a character. Gail Honeyman takes you to the inside of Eleanor’s head, whether to the dreamy little white room inside there or the one with Mummy whispering. Join these pieces to Eleanor’s puzzle in this book.
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