Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

By Gail Honeyman, A well-meaning and optimistic 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. But I’ve been wanting to read less depressing stuff, and it’s never too late to enjoy a good book right? Right.

Before I jump into the review itself, can we please talk about how much nicer the UK cover is in comparison to the US cover?

I ended up ordering this off of Book Depository in order to get the UK version — I love that they reliably ship worldwide. Pre-Book Depository, it such was a pain to get UK versions of books without paying exorbitant shipping fees. I remember the first time I went to England, I bought so many books (mainly from Foyles) that my suitcase was overweight, plus England was only our first stop so I ended up schlepping those books all across Europe for two weeks. Anyway.

Plot Summary

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

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 and the autism she suffers from.

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.

Book Review

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.

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?) 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.

Character Inconsistencies

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 — 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 austism and clinical depression 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”? 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 that there are 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?

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?

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.