Eleanor Oliphant is a 30 year old accounts worker at a graphic design firm in Glasgow, Scotland. She is particular, organized and incredibly socially awkward, but without any desire to change herself to be liked- she is, as the title indicates, “completely fine”. Eleanor’s life is, like her personality, particular and organized- she goes to work and then she goes home, with weekends filled by grocery store pizza and a vodka buzz. She has no friends or family and as we get to know her more we get some of her backstory that helps to explain her social awkwardness- a fire when she was a child and a mother who is present only in telephone calls, implicitly calls from the facility where she is incarcerated. Several events occur that change Eleanor’s solitary trajectory- an act of helpfulness to an elderly pedestrian in distress and Eleanor’s chance meeting with the lead singer of local band.
I initially thought that this story was headed in a dramatically different direction, and I was cringing in anticipation of her making a fool of herself. Happily, then, Honeyman wrote Eleanor and her journey differently- although there are certain cringeworthy moments, they are minor events rather than the major character arc. Instead, Honeyman focuses on Eleanor’s loneliness in more realistic ways- how easy it is for an adult without family to drift along without any real friends or even outside of work acquaintances.
The majority of reviews out there are glowing, although there were several that were scathing in their hate (a 1 star review on Medium is a top search result…). Oddly, I find myself in neither camp. I liked the novel well enough but now that I’ve read some of the plot/character development criticisms I can’t get them out of my head (two in particular: Eleanor’s rapid character development seems incongruous with someone who has spent a lifetime being socially awkward; I also didn’t think she initially had the heart of gold that Honeyman has other characters recognize in her). Reese Witherspoon’s production company has picked up the rights to this novel, so we’ll see if I like her adaptation more than I liked that of Little Fires Everywhere (I would suspect yes: when it is books I have less love for, I can keep a more open mind about the tv version).
For cbr12bingo: this is Honeyman’s debut novel, published in her 40s! A pretty impressive debut.