By Gail Honeyman, A well-meaning but flawed story about isolation and mental illness
I think pretty much everyone else has read Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by now, or at least everyone among book bloggers, so I’m fairly late to this party.
So, I should probably warn you before I get into the review that I did not love this book as much as most people did. So, if you really loved this book and don’t want to hear anything negative about it, I’d recommend just skipping this review. Alright, that’s my warning.
In Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, our protagonist is a damaged young woman. From the onset, it’s clear there’s something “off” about her that goes past mere social awkwardness.
Eleanor Oliphant’s face is scarred, and her mother is institutionalized. She also receives periodic visits from a social worker, who brings up a past incident involving a fire that Eleanor refuses to discuss.
Eleanor’s background is revealed slowly throughout the book, but it’s, of course, one that includes various instances of both trauma and abuse. However, though her relationships, both real and imagined, she begins on the path to recovery — and even romance.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is a fast and accessible read. It’s a book about loneliness, isolation and a need for connection that can ring true to many people, including those who don’t suffer to quite the same degree as this protagonist.
As you might expect, the book is mainly about Eleanor’s journey to reintegrate herself with society. Despite its somewhat dark premise of a woman with a mental illness who has suffered abuse, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is actually a lighthearted and rather heartwarming story.
It’d add the caveat, however, that this requires a fair amount of suspension of disbelief in order to enjoy. I think the attempt to make Eleanor Oliphant a character people can identify with also made her a bit unbelievable. Her journey, while sweet and upbeat, seems unrealistic considering the background the author has given her. Can a makeover cure years of abuse? Eleanor Oliphant seems to think so.
The ease and speed with which she’s able to reintegrate with society seems at odds with her difficult and troubled past as well as the state of her mental wellness. (If it was that easy, why didn’t this happen sooner?)
(Update: Here is a review of this book from someone who is more knowledgeable than I am about the care system, which is worth taking a look about.)
And one of the major plotlines resolves with her just realizing out of the blue that her behavior is abnormal. And no one with serious issues makes huge progress in their first therapy session — that’s just not how that works.
As much as I would like reality to be otherwise, the fact is that trauma and overcoming it often doesn’t have the neat progressions and the tidy endings that are depicted in Eleanor Oliphant. This is not to say there’s nothing to be gained from this empathetically-told story — I think everyone could use a reminder to have patience with the lonely oddballs out there. However, I do think the story sort of minimizes how frustrating and slow progress can be — even when surrounded by well-meaning individuals — when dealing with serious mental illnesses and substance abuse.
Beyond that, I had a really hard time understanding the contours of Eleanor’s personality and neuroses. It seems to have a little bit of everything in there, and it wasn’t really consistently defined.
Questions: Why is she computer illiterate at the age of 30 but somehow knows how to stalk someone via social media? How does she have her level of mental and social issues but is able to transform into a stylish person on a dime when required? Was it really necessary for her to have all these issues, plus alcoholism and clinical depression (and back pain, eczema, etc.) on top of it?
More questions: Why does she drink “Magners Irish Cider” constantly and have no clue what cider is even though it’s written on the label — I thought she was someone who was very detail oriented? Why is her culinary palette too fancy to know what baked beans or fish fingers are, but she knows what jelly beans and doughnuts are? Why is it that she doesn’t understand to be kind about someone’s husband getting cancer but then narrates things such as “these days, loneliness is the new cancer”?
Also: Why does she know what constitutes an appropriate romantic date (playing music and chilled champagne on Valentine’s day) but thinks its okay to buy an old man a Playboy as a get-well-soon gift? Why is she only now discovering different genres of music but seems to know what pop music is? Why does she know what artificial lashes are and how they’re attached, but doesn’t know what a “smokey eye” is? How does she manage to complete crosswords when she doesn’t know what really basic cultural terms are?
I’m sure there are more, but I’ll stop here for now. But you get the point.
Eleanor Oliphant Movie Adaptation (Status, Cast, Etc.)
There’s a movie adaptation of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine that is currently in development (as of April 2019). That means it’s still pretty early on in the process, though the book was originally optioned in May 2017. So far, no cast has been reported apart from Reese Witherspoon being listed as a cast member.
Reese Witherspoon’s production company Hello Sunshine will be producing it. As reported in December 2018, the screenplay will be authored by Liz Hannah, who also wrote Steven Spielberg’s “The Post.”
For more details, see Everything We Know about the Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine Movie.
Read it Or Skip it?
Even with whatever caveats I have about the level of realism and inconsistencies in this story, it remains an accessible and sweet story with a well-meaning lesson to impart.
The book has been very well received (Reese Witherspoon bought the film rights), and I can understand why — it’s one that many people can find something to like about if they allow themselves and suspend their disbelief.
However, people who are naturally more cynical or critical or interested in realism or a serious look at mental disorders will have to put those things aside for a bit or just skip this book altogether. I’m not sure this book was a good fit for me, honestly. I also guessed the twist at the end about 50 pages in, which didn’t really help my enjoyment of the book.
That said, if you read this book and it pushes you to be a little kinder or more patient to that one weird person that everyone knows then clearly this book has done it’s job — I would just add that making any progress with people who suffer from a history of mental illness and trauma may require much more patience and quite a bit more effort than is advertised in this book.
I’m sure a bunch of you have already read Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine — what did you think? See Eleanor Oliphant on Amazon.
P.S. If you liked this and are interested in books about loners and oddballs, I’d strongly recommend The Rosie Project. It’s a sweet, funny and romantic story about a man who is on the autism spectrum trying to find love.
Update: So, there are a number of questions that get asked frequently, so I’ve compiled the answers here. For answers to stuff like, what’s the plot twist in Eleanor Oliphant? Or, is Eleanor Oliphant autistic/on the spectrum/does she has Asperger’s Syndrome? Plus, some other stuff, see Questions and Answers about Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.
Detailed Book Summary (Spoilers)
Good DaysChapters 1 - 8 Eleanor Oliphant, 29, works in a office. Her coworkers make fun of her because she is awkward. She calls her mother frequently, but her mom is mean to her. She has back pain, eczema, bunions. She is socially withdrawn but very articulate. Her face is partially scarred from fire. She goes to a concert and becomes obsessed with the singer (Johnnie Lomond). She buys a laptop so she can stalk him online. She ends up figuring out where he lives and checking out his home (from outside). Raymond is a new co-worker. She and Raymond see an old man (Sammy) fall over while crossing the street, and they call an ambulance. They later visit him in the hospital. After the visit, she gets a drink with Raymond. A social worker comes to check on Eleanor and refers to an "incident" that occurred in her past where she ended up being hospitalized for a long time. Eleanor case file describes her childhood with her foster homes, sobbing at night, hysterics, etc. Chapters 9 - 25 Raymond invites Eleanor to see his mom who is older and in need of company. His mom talks about their family and shows her old photos, but when the topic of Eleanor's family comes up, Eleanor finds herself crying. In preparation of attending another Johnnie Lomond concert, she gets waxed, her nails done, gets a makeover, new shoes, etc. But the concert is sold out so she can't get in. Instead, she stalks him at a Tesco (convenience store) where she buys alcohol (she's an alcoholic). She and Raymond see Sammy again when he is awake, and promise to visit again soon. When they do, he invites them to a party. At Sammy's party, she meets his daughter Laura who offers to give her a better haircut. Raymond tells her about getting his heart broken. Eleanor tells him about being in abusive relationship with a guy, Declan. The next day, Raymond invites her to Sammy's son's birthday party and they start regularly meeting for lunch. Eleanor gets offered a promotion at work. She starts getting compliments on her appearance at work. Her mom continues to belittle her despite everything. Sammy passes away, which sends Eleanor into a bout of drinking. Raymond finds her at the bar and she ends up telling him about the fire at her house when she was 10 which caused her scars.
Bad DaysChapters 26 - 40 Eleanor finally attends Johnny's next concert and realizes how delusional she's been. Standing in the crowd at the concert, it dawn s on her that he has no clue who she is. She's in love with a man she's never met. She goes on a drinking binge. Finally Raymond shows up at her place after many days to check on her. He wants her to see a therapist. Raymond brings her a pet cat. She meets with Maria Temple, who helps her process her feelings bout her Johnny obsession and her fear of her mom. Eleanor agrees to continue seeing her. Her mom is not happy about the therapist. After a few weeks of therapy, Eleanor reveals that her father was a rapist and her mother was convinced she was meant to be royalty or something. Eleanor has trouble talking about the fire still, which is sealed off from her memory. Raymond googles about the fire and finds some information, but she isn't ready to see it. She finally starts talking about her sister Marianne in therapy. Eventually she reveals that her mom set the fire that Marianne died in, where she was burned. Eleanor decides its time for her mom to no longer be in her life, and she's tells her mom they can't speak any more. Eleanor finally returns to work.
Better DaysChapters 41 - 42 Raymond gently shows her the article about the fire. It reveals that her mom died. The conversations that Eleanor's had with her mom throughout the book where her mom was insulting and belittling her were all in her head. Eleanor realizes what's important is that she survived. Raymond makes plans to see her again and she kisses his cheek.
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