Of course, it was pretty much a given that the titular Eleanor Oliphant of Gail Honeyman’s debut novel would not be completely fine, since stories about completely fine, well-adjusted people do not lend themselves to compelling narratives. However, everything I knew about this book going into it (a soothingly neutral artsy cover, the review pull-quotes on Amazon, Reese Witherspoon’s folksy Southern-fried endorsement) did not prepare me for level of trauma experienced by our protagonist. Eleanor isn’t just not fine, she is grappling with massive psychological trauma, alcohol dependency, delusions, crushing loneliness, past sexual abuse, and a lack of social awareness that crosses into and complete denial of the aforementioned conditions. I’m actually pretty annoyed about the bait-and-switch with the reviews on this. According to the Amazon review blurbs, Eleanor is a “quirky loner,” “eccentric,” and “charming.” Hahaha, noooo. No no no no no. Eleanor Oliphant is fucked up.
Eleanor starts the novel as a withdrawn office worker with no social contacts outside of her work and weekly conversations with her “Mummy” that only exacerbate her problems. Eleanor is abrasive, judgemental, and literal-minded to the point of straining credulity. At the start of the story, she develops a crush on a musician that she spins into a delusional fantasy of fated hearts and happily ever after, going so far as to stake out his apartment and stalk him on social media. Simultaneously, Eleanor becomes closer with her coworker Raymond when they help an old man named Sammy who collapses in the street. Her ill-fated romantic obsession with the musician and the social interactions she stumbles into with Raymond and Sammy force her to reevaluate her place in the world, hit her emotional rock bottom, and finally come to terms with her mental health.
This book is funny in places, and, given the heaviness of the material, I’m glad there was a sense of humor about things. I am also glad the story has a happy ending (spoiler, I guess?) since I am not an emotional masochist, and if I wanted to wallow in misery, there is plenty in the non-fiction section to keep me entertained.
There is an inherent disconnect between Eleanor’s role as a narrator and her mental health issues. As the narrative voice, she is intelligent and self-aware in a way that is necessary for the humor of the book, but this is at odds with the character’s lack of social competence and emotional fragility. Additionally, first page Eleanor and last page Eleanor are two entirely different people in a way that a few months of therapy and a couple of new friends can’t quite justify. It isn’t that people with traumatic pasts can’t overcome them and find happiness. They can! They should! It’s just that Eleanor starts out so (unrealistically) clueless to her problems, and it seems too pat that she is able to have a couple of epiphanies and suddenly be, well, completely fine. In a way, I feel like this book idealizes overcoming trauma in the same way a Harlequin romance idealizes a romantic relationship. Enjoyable to read, but only tenuously connected to real life.