“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.”
I was wary of reading this book because when a book ends up being shelved separately at your favorite bookstore chain, it is likely it might not live up to the hype. After reluctantly ignoring its omnipresence in bookstores, I finally downloaded the audiobook and jumped in.
One of the major attractions of the book for me was its setting in Glasgow, the lovely city I’d grown to love recently. However, when a book is predominantly talking about loneliness and grief and trauma, it is hardly possible to not be triggered by it, right? Wrong.
This book comes as a pleasantly packaged surprise in the form of the story of Eleanor Oliphant, who works as a finance clerk in a graphic design firm. She is super-comfortable in her fairly predictable life and routine, and she doesn’t mind the monotony.
She is rather fond of it and looks forward to spending her weekends the same way that she always does: buy a pizza from Tesco supermarket and two bottles of vodka on Friday, then spend the weekend alone, at home, in a drunken stupor. Until some events change things.
What is the book about?
The book begins with an introduction into the formulaic life of the eccentric Eleanor Oliphant. She isn’t a character you immediately take a liking to, because she doesn’t even love herself.
She is judgemental, and aloof, and terse with her views on people, places, and things. She exhibits this through her unintentional but punchy sense of humor.
And as you learn her more and more, you realize that kindness is not the most apparent emotion when it comes to Eleanor, because she hasn’t been the recipient of it much. And the reader’s journey into understanding Eleanor corresponds with her own.
It is a psychological fiction that delves into just the right amount of depth: it is raw enough to be realistic, but not too jarring to wound your soul.
And it is peppered with words of wisdom, “Although it’s good to try new things and to keep an open mind, it’s also essential to stay true to who you are.” It says a lot, yet not too much.
She is a most unusual protagonist, and hers is a story we have all been waiting for — she is no damsel-in-distress, but we all like to have a support system in our life to help cope with the woes and pains of living. The narrative includes an underlying commentary on how strength is often equated with the repression of emotions, but in reality, courage lies in vulnerability.
The Five Main ideas
- An Ode to Glasgow: Glasgow is the embodiment of kindness. Having lived there as a non-native, I can testify to that. The book breaks the stereotypical image of Glasgow, and Scotland at large, stripping it of Scottish adrenaline-glazed masculinity but keeping the features of the city alive: the gritty bars, the weekend Tesco-shopping, the strange characters walking down the street, friendships borne out of acts of kindness.
- Eleanor’s thoughts are reminiscent of other unreliable narrators in contemporary literature. Cath from Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. Cadence from We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. Charlie from The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. She is eccentric, and you grasp this very early in the novel. It is a celebration of introverts of sorts, as reflected in this excerpt, “in principle and reality, libraries are life-enhancing palaces of wonder.”
- It is set in this today’s Glasgow, which is apparent from the lack of cliches that women-centric books are often riddled with. Moments of self-pity are rare with Eleanor. Her agency isn’t lost. And her history, and by extension, her trauma isn’t discounted as a plot device.
- Raymond, one of the most essential characters in the book and Eleanor’s life, is a sheer delight. For any character in the book, there are no larger-than-life portraits. So, his character is a celebration of ordinariness, but don’t mistake ordinariness for mediocrity. He shows that kindness alone can make a huge difference.
- Loneliness. Moving to Glasgow, I came across many stories of people struggling with loneliness. At first, I dismissed it as a cultural adjustment: South Asian families are vastly different from Scottish households. Of course, as we move to increasingly cosmopolitan lifestyles and start living alone, Gail Honeyman’s work isn’t a commentary on this theme, it is merely a dissection, a presentation of it. Eleanor is continually looking for a ‘Table for one,’ but even her comfort with loneliness has an expiry date, “When the silence and the aloneness press down and around me, crushing me, carving through me like ice, I need to speak aloud sometimes, if only for proof of life.”
The Book in 3 Sentences
Considering the attention-scanty world we live in, here’s a quick recap of the book in 3 sentences: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is a book that lies in the title itself. And in doing so, it is an absolute reflection of the stigma-ridden society we live in. So Eleanor Oliphant is wonderful, and she is also entirely not.
If you look at the story, the characters, the narration, and the plot in totality, they are both voguish and avant-garde. This is the story of Eleanor’s recovery, as she breaks from the metaphorical cocoon she thought was protecting her, when in fact, she was living only partially. It is the story of how she faces her traumas and griefs, finds a support system, gets professional help, and defines true self-care.
It is usually not the remarkable events that kindle change, but the ordinary moments that end up making a huge difference in your outlook to life. You can only connect the dots looking backward. That’s what this book does — it fills us with unbridled hope that even if things don’t make sense now, they will while keeping it real and grounded.
About the Author
Kritika Narula is a writer and journalist. A Media Management graduate from the University of Glasgow, her professional and personal interests lie in digital outreach, media, mental health advocacy, research, books, and technology evaluation.