I haven’t loved a book this much from the get-go since The Night Circus. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman is the story of Eleanor Oliphant, a scarred (in both the literal and figurative sense) awkward outcast who falls in love with a singer during a ill-begotten quasi-date with another man. She makes it her mission to change herself in order to attract the singer’s interest, although he has no idea who she is.
Eleanor is a very funny character with many quirks, a reclusive office worker with no interest in people except as things to observe. When she catches her coworkers making fun of her, she has no emotional response except a chuckle at one of the jokes made at her expense. She drinks heavily on the weekends. She has a vicious mother, an awful back story, and a wildly entertaining disregard for social norms.
Lest Eleanor seem like a socially backward caricature, the book makes it clear she is lonely and seeks love:
“There are scars on my heart, just as thick, as disfiguring as those on my face. I know they’re there. I hope some undamaged tissue remains, a patch through which love can come in and flow out. I hope.”
The story of how Eleanor got her scars isn’t explicated at first, but through her conversations with her horrible mother, it becomes clear that Eleanor has been damaged severely by her mother. Although the mother’s dialogue has acid wit, her remarks are deliberately barbed and intended to cause the maximum harm. Here is one passage:
“I do so love to hear from you darling. . . You wouldn’t understand, of course but the bond between a mother and child it’s . . .how best to describe it . . .unbreakable. The two of us are linked forever, you see—same blood in my veins that’s running through yours. You grew inside me, your teeth and your tongue and your cervix are all made from my cells, my genes. Who knows what little surprises I left growing inside there for you, which codes I set running? Breast cancer? Alzheimer’s? You’ll just have to wait and see.”
I have a weakness for damaged characters who never give up. They stay their unique and hurt selves, but they are more than just their oddities and trauma. Eleanor is one such character. At first, I laughed at her a bit—the book is very funny—but soon I felt for her. Her life has made her what she is, but she tries to rise above the pain to form a better life (with her unique personhood still well intact). Even in her elaborate fantasies about a relationship with the singer, there is something tender there. She also has a colleague from work, Raymond, who becomes her first friend.
This book was amazing. It made me cry a few times. It’s beautiful and tragic and hilarious. By the end, I loved Eleanor with all my heart. Even now, as I sit here, I am thinking of her; not as a fictional character but a real person who exists somewhere, rising up, to overcome.