I should learn. I really should.
I almost never really enjoy books that have won certain awards.
When these books also receive high ratings on GoodReads it’s almost certain I’m not going to like it.
I almost never remember this when I’m browsing for a new book to read.
I can almost never place my finger on why.
And so it is with Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.
Now, this doesn’t mean that it’s a completely bad book. It is certainly not as bad as half the drivel that gets published, and so it was nice to pick up something that was actually readable. It’s just, as the title of this blog suggests, I found it rather ‘Meh.’
And about half-way through the book, I did start reading from a perspective of just wanting to know the answers and how things would unravel, rather than from a ‘I’m really enjoying this’ perspective. Which is a shame.
Eleanor Oliphant is a creature of habit. She goes to work. She comes home. She drinks two litres of vodka every weekend, and eats a frozen pizza. That’s her lot, and she’s happy with it (or so it seems), until, that is, a chance encounter changes everything.
One thing in this book’s favour is Gail Honeyman’s characterisation – which is strong, if a little caricature-esque at times. Eleanor herself, is an interesting creation – which is not quite the same as an interesting person. (See above – she does the same thing day in, day out). She is strange, isolated from people, but able to function, somewhat, in the real world. Indeed, she doesn’t seem to realise what she’s been missing from her lack of social interactions until she starts to develop a few. But even then, she’s not sure of the rules. As a portrait of isolation, and loneliness, Eleanor’s character could be devastating. She doesn’t know how to behave in the most mundane of everyday situations, and her behaviour drives people further away, or position her as the subject of ridicule. Yet, because she is so extreme (her speech is old fashioned, she doesn’t understand technology – at times she is as affected as a Victorian dowager) – any power it could have had is lost.
It is sad that it only takes a little kindness – first from Eleanor herself, with a little prompting – and then as it is returned to her, many fold, for her life to change. We start to see a lighter Eleanor as she is freed from her self-imposed limitations. We start to understand why she’s decided why not to let anyone in. Her realisation of what she’s lacked so far, and how little it takes to change that, is a very sad one. Yet, there is hope – always hope. Eleanor protests that she’s happy with her lot, but she’s open to change. All she needs is a couple of nudges in the right direction, and her life starts to transform. Again, this would be a lot more powerful is she wasn’t such a caricature – if she was more believable and a truly tragic character, not just a hyperbolic one.
There is comedy in Eleanor’s misunderstanding of the modern world, but it does feel a little like a cheap laugh. At times she acts like an eighty year old woman. But there are things that don’t quite add up. It’s stated that she went to university, and got a good degree – yet she doesn’t understand terminology that her fellow students would have used. Even if she’d never fratenised with them – something of their speech would have rubbed off. The comedy of her ignorance of things (what a bikini wax entails, what Top Gear is etc) is enjoyable, but it assumes a character who has not only shunned technology completely – but who has also never opened their eyes on the way to work, or overheard a conversation. Additionally, it’s never quite explained how Eleanor did so well academically – not just because of what we know of her background. She doesn’t seem to have the motivation, or the determination to succeed that you’d need to achieve a degree of such high standing. When the rest of the novel is written in such a realistic manner, these glaring inconsistencies did hit me full throttle. And yes, she is clearly written as having some form of aspergers or similar – but that portrayal isn’t quite right either. There’s just something that doesn’t fit. (Though I am sure many would disagree with me. Indeed, most reviewers do).
The twist is the part of the novel which is most clumsily dealt with for me. This is on two levels, and this is going to be hard to discuss without spoilers. Partly it felt necessary. Yes, clearly there was some trauma in Eleanor’s past life, but the level to which the twist goes, and the depth of these events and the aftermath feels a bit ridiculous. Also, I think it’s somewhat crudely dealt with in terms of how Eleanor is almost meant to feel magically better at the end of it. It doesn’t hang together for me, and the symptoms of Eleanor’s self-destructive behaviour are all too conveniently brushed under the table (her frankly dangerous drinking habit, for example). It didn’t need the added trauma, as it could have worked perfectly fine being simply addressing the topic of loneliness, especially when the twist is somewhat contrite and not well researched enough. It seems fashionable these days to put in extra twists to try and elevate books to some deeper level of seriousness. Is this a tactic to be nominated for prizes? At any rate, I wish authors wouldn’t do this – because sometimes simplicity is better. It certainly would have been in this case.
So just like Eleanor seems always on the cusp of society, the novel, for me, is always on the cusp of achieving its full potential. So yes, Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine – and that is about it. Still, I’m sure the irony is not missed that a book on loneliness has gained its author huge popularity. Though Eleanor Oliphant was not wholly to my taste, I will keep an eye out for the next offering from Gail Honeyman and reserve full judgement on her authorial style until I can read that.
Three stars. (Just).