“I have always taken great pride in managing my life alone. I’m a sole survivor – I’m Eleanor Oliphant. I don’t need anyone else – there’s no big hole in my life, no missing part of my own particular puzzle. I am a self-contained entity. That’s what I’ve always told myself, at any rate.”
“Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” has gotten a whirlwind of attention and has found itself in high demand this summer. Often times, this much buzz makes me skeptical or even resistant, but I decided to give Honeyman’s book a shot. I’m glad that I did.
Eleanor Oliphant, at her most basic level, isn’t necessarily a new character. She is quirky, isolated, and awkward, and popular fiction has taken a shine to such characters for ages. But the depth and reasoning behind Eleanor’s behavior, the trauma and grief she has puzzled through, distinguish her story from the lighter fare of, say, “The Rosie Project”.
Eleanor Oliphant is a creature of habit and solitude. She has lived in the same apartment and worked the same menial job for decades. She has no friends, nor does she seem to feel a lack of them. She is herself and she is, allegedly, completely fine. Of ‘Polly’, a parrot plant:
“She came with me from my childhood bedroom, survived the foster placements and children’s homes and, like me, she’s still here. I’ve looked after her, tended to her, picked her up and repotted her when she was dropped or thrown. She likes light, and she’s thirsty. Apart from that, she requires minimal care and attention, and largely looks after herself.”
This hardy plant IS Eleanor. Her veneer, even from the story’s outset, has cracks, however. For someone who often seems oblivious of her surroundings, she is, nevertheless, self conscious and self aware:
“I aspire to average … I’ve been the focus of far too much attention in my time. Pass me over, move along please, nothing to see here.”
Despite her proclaimed oblivion, she has keen insight into the sexist world:
“Did men ever look in the mirror, I wondered, and find themselves wanting in deeply fundamental ways? When they opened a newspaper or watched a film, were they presented with nothing but exceptionally handsome young men, and did this make them feel intimidated, inferior, because they were not as young, not as handsome? Did they then read newspaper articles ridiculing those same handsome men if they gained weight or wore something unflattering?”
She pities the beautiful with tongue firmly in cheek:
“I feel sorry for beautiful people. Beauty, from the moment you possess it, is already slipping away, ephemeral. That must be difficult. Always having to prove that there’s more to you, wanting people to see beneath the surface, to be loved for yourself, and not your stunning body, sparkling eyes or thick, lustrous hair.”
You mean beautiful people have to struggle to be seen, just like….the rest of us?
“Eleanor Oliphant” walks a delicate balance of biting witticisms and devastating barbs. Eleanor is haunted by her ‘Mummy’, a terrifying, ruthless woman who seems to take special joy in devastating others. She is lonely to a hyperbolic degree. She is full not only of self doubt, but self castigation.
“Eyelids are really just flesh curtains. Your eyes are always ‘on,’ always looking; when you close them, you’re watching the thin, veined skin of your inner eyelid rather than staring out at the world. It’s not a comforting thought. In fact, if I thought about it for long enough, I’d probably want to pluck out my own eyes, to stop looking, to stop seeing all the time. The things I’ve seen cannot be unseen. The things I’ve done cannot be undone.”
Masquerading as light and witty fare, “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” actually often cuts deep and wends its way into your heart. Eleanor is the most endearing of misanthropes, and Gail Honeyman’s book is a treat and a treasure.