Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine
You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.
Happy International Women’s Day! 🥳 I’d completely forgotten about this day until Snapchat reminded me of it an hour ago, but it seemed appropriate to mark the occasion with a review of the latest addition to my badass women shelf. I’d been planning to post this review today anyway, but it’s nice when things work out.
Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is the sweet, hilarious, and heartbreaking story of a young woman who has come through horrific abuse, both at the hands of her mother and of her college boyfriend, and somehow still made it into her thirties. Following the institutionalization of her mother and the removal of her boyfriend, she has been living by herself and working as an accountant at a design agency. Given that she was raised by a mentally unstable mother and then shifted from foster house to foster house for the rest of her childhood, she has very poor social skills, and is more comfortable with classical literature than she is with other people. Though she is repulsed by the people she interacts with on a day-to-day basis, she also quietly wishes for connection, and eventually finds it when she is befriended by Raymond Gibbons, the office IT guy and her complete antithesis.
Eleanor Oliphant struck a chord with me because I am a book-inhaling, literature-reciting nerd who has been muddling along for about a decade in a life I would consider “fine.” In the thirty or so years she’s been alive, no one has ever told Eleanor that life should be better than “fine,” and it shows. She goes to work every day at the same time, comes home at the same time, and eats pasta with pesto and salad every night except for Friday, when she buys a frozen pizza from the supermarket. She has nothing to do on the weekends, and spends every weekend waiting for Monday to come while drinking herself blind. It sounds depressing when I say it like that, but Eleanor is actually really good company. For someone whose weekly highlight is a frozen margherita pizza and a bottle of Chianti, she’s surprisingly funny. She never actually means to be funny, but her day-to-day observations are hilarious. Here’s a few of my favorites:
Eleanor vs. Sports Day
How they loved to wear those badges on their blazers the next day! As if a silver in the egg-and-spoon race was some sort of compensation for not understanding how to use an apostrophe.
Eleanor vs. Rock
It was, I thought, the sound of madness, the kind of music the lunatics hear in their heads just before they slice the heads off foxes and throw them into their neighbor’s back garden.
Eleanor vs. Clients
Clients, I soon learned, could be very demanding; I still had limited direct contact with them, which suited me just fine.
From what I could gather, they would routinely be completely unable to articulate their requirements, at which point, in desperation, the designers would create some artwork for them based on the few vague hints they had managed to elicit. After many hours of work, involving a full team of staff, the work would be submitted to the client for approval. At that point, the client would say, “No. That’s exactly what I don’t want.”
There would be several torturous iterations of this process before the client finally declared his or herself satisfied with the end results. Inevitably, Bob said, the artwork that was signed off on at the end of the process was virtually identical to the first piece of work submitted, which the client had immediately dismissed as unsuitable. It was no wonder, I thought, that he kept the staff room well stocked with beer, wine and chocolate, and that the art team availed themselves of it quite so frequently.
OUCH. 😭💔 As a professional designer employed by a multinational corporation, I can tell you that none of Eleanor’s observations are exaggerated, and that chocolate is a welcome and necessary part of most of my days.
This was what sold me on Eleanor: I’d seen the book making the social media rounds and had been somewhat interested, but I was put off by the romance vibes in the synopsis and ultimately decided against it. Romance has never been my thing, and this one sounded particularly sappy. I might never have read the book if I hadn’t received a photo of the Eleanor vs. Clients passage from a friend who knows me waaaaayyyyyyyy too well. I was mildly disappointed to discover that Eleanor herself is not one of the tortured designers, but her perspective on the matter, first as an accountant and then as the interim office manager, somehow makes her observations even more pointed. And, although there is a love story involved, it’s a very quiet kind of love story, the kind that doesn’t make me want to hurl fox heads into my neighbors’ gardens.
One thing I really, really love about Eleanor Oliphant is that, although it’s gently hinted that Eleanor and Raymond might eventually get together, as of the end of the book they don’t. I love that they end the book as besties rather than as a couple. I love that they’ll both have time to process and figure out what they want from a relationship. I love that Honeyman didn’t feel like she had to pair them off, either with each other or with other people, by the end of the book.
I’ll admit I had concerns. One of the most prominent story arcs is Eleanor’s growing obsession with Johnnie Lomond, a local musician generally held in low regard by other characters. It becomes clear fairly quickly that Johnnie is a pretentious, talentless asshole, but Eleanor forms a massive crush on him after seeing him perform just once, and proceeds to stalk him for most of the book. To this end she buys her first laptop and smartphone and follows him on Facebook and Twitter, and frequently fantasizes about their first meeting, which she spends most of her time trying to orchestrate, and their life together. But all great fantasies must come to an end, and she eventually realizes that her imaginary relationship is never going to fly. This was an enormous relief and part of the reason I was really really glad she’s going to have time to be single and think about what she wants from a boyfriend, even if I did occasionally want to shake her and scream “RAYMOND IS SO MUCH BETTER FOR YOU!”
I was concerned about this arc not because it’s bad or unrealistic, but because by that point I loved Eleanor so much that the thought of seeing her throw herself at a man who would only hurt her was unbearable. I had a couple of theories going: (1) Eleanor would meet Johnnie Lomond, and he would say or do something awful to her; or (2) Eleanor would eventually realize that she liked Raymond, and would completely forget about Johnnie. In the end neither of these things happened because Eleanor, like the sensible, intelligent person she is, realizes completely on her own that her “love” is only a crush, and that she has been behaving like a starstruck fifteen-year-old.
The moment in which she realizes that Johnnie doesn’t know her from Eve is perhaps the most heartbreaking, because she’d built up a whole world around a man who was unworthy of her and then found it crashing down around her ears in the space of one evening. This realization leads to a mental crash, which in turn leads to a crushing, alcohol-fueled meltdown and almost suicide attempt. Fortunately, Raymond notices she’s suddenly gone missing and turns up at her door, and eventually manages to steer her into therapy. With the help of Raymond and Dr. Temple, she restabilizes and begins to learn to love herself, and also learns to cope with the loss of her sister and her mother, whose deaths she has been repressing – somewhat predictably – for most of her life.
This is one of the very few gripes I had with Eleanor Oliphant: it’s mildly predictable. It doesn’t even come close to the usual romantic formula, but the biggest influences on her life are easily guessed. On page one she says she went to her first job interview with a black eye, a couple of missing teeth, and a broken arm, which tells you that an abusive boyfriend will be coming out at some point in the book. It’s not that you can completely rule out abuse by family, but at that stage in her life an abusive partner seemed more likely. In chapter 22 her mother says “I was cursed with daughters,” which tells you that Eleanor had a sister at some point, even though she has no memory of this sister and thinks she is an only child. Looking back over the rest of the story, I’ve begun to see other clues that I missed during my first read-through, little hints of Marianne. I really need to read this again, because I’m starting to realize how smoothly Marianne was integrated into the story, even if she wasn’t explicitly introduced until the end. And, even though I could predict the missing sister and the abusive boyfriend, the death of the mother came as a complete surprise. In retrospect, it did seem a little funny that this awful woman was still allowed to verbally abuse her daughter from whatever institution she’d been put in, but it makes perfect sense that she’s just an elaborate construction created by Eleanor as a coping mechanism.
Even with all of the above, Eleanor Oliphant still wasn’t done with me, because I also bought the audiobook and listened to it during work this past week. It was excellent. The narration was wonderful. The story didn’t get old or tiring because there were so many little clues and references I’d missed the first time around, including a reference to The Wire that completely went over my head. I will say I’m really glad I read it first, because I really would’ve struggled with the Scottish accent if I hadn’t already known the story and the dialogue.
Pros: This is hands down one of the best books I’ve read this year. Of course, the year is still young, but the statement stands. If you’re on the fence about Eleanor Oliphant, read it. I recommend both the print and audio versions. As a random bonus (for me), Eleanor and I share a birth year. 🙃 As a more general bonus, fans of classical literature should have fun finding her treasure trove of classical references. My favorite:
When the buzzer sounded on the heat lamp, the color-mixing girl came over and led me to the “backwash,” which was, by any other name, a sink.
I feel like Eleanor is going to make me even more literate, because she’s seriously making me want to start reading Jane Austen and the Brontës. For instance, I only just now realized she foreshadows Marianne in chapter 13, when she mentions her love of the characters Elinor and Marianne in Sense and Sensibility. This requires further investigation. I can see I’ll be visiting the library a lot this year.
Cons: Mild predictability, a certain idiot musician who’s not worth Eleanor’s spit, unclear passage of time. In the beginning she says she’s “nearly thirty,” later she says she’s just turned thirty-one. What’s up with that? Also Reese’s fucking book club sticker is still stuck on the front wtaf 🤬 This doesn’t actually affect my enjoyment of the book – I mean, I’m not insane – but I still don’t see the need for these gorram stickers. If you’re somebody who doesn’t care about the stickers, I envy you.
Random Brain Farts
I had trouble finding the book at Barnes & Noble because I was absolutely convinced it was written by Elin Hilderbrand and I have no idea why. Luckily it wasn’t too far down from the Hilderbrand section, so I still found it anyway. Then I was convinced it was written by someone named Gail Honeymoon. I actually typed “Honeymoon” earlier in this review and only caught it by chance. I seriously have no idea how my brain works sometimes. Maybe I associate it with Hilderbrand because it’s on the same shelf as the Hilderbrand books idk man