NY Times Best Seller: “Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine”

Updated on May 22, 2020
Beth Eaglescliffe profile image

I teach creative writing to adults and love helping my students improve their writing skills.

"Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine" by Gail Honeyman.
"Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine" by Gail Honeyman. | Source

Outstanding First Novel by Gail Honeyman

I’d been meaning to read this book for some time, but was put off by all the gushing reviews it received. (I’m a bit contrary like that.) Eventually, one lack-luster day, I took it down from the bookshelf and read it. And I’m very pleased I did.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine defies description; it’s engaging, funny, sad, warm, surprising. This is an incredible first novel from Gail Honeyman. Her writing is fluent, and easy to read. After the first few pages, I found this book almost impossible to put down. I read it straight through non-stop, with only short breaks to eat and sleep.

The story is about loneliness, acts of kindness, and about how little we really know of each other’s lives. The book was a well-deserved winner of the Costa First Novel Award in 2017, and has won many more accolades since.

Multi Award Winning Novel in UK and US

2017 Winner of Costa First Novel Award

2018 No.1 Sunday Times bestseller list

2018 British Book Awards Book of the Year

2018 US Audie Award for Fiction

2018 BAMB Reader’s Choice Award

2018 No.1 New York Times bestseller list

2018 Reese Witherspoon Book Club Pick

Costa First Novel Award Winner 2017

Who is Eleonor Oliphant?

The main protagonist is a young woman who lives on her own in the city. She has a mundane, ordinary life, working a regular 9-5 office job. On the surface, there’s nothing remarkable about her.

She’s held down the same steady job in accounts since graduation. She is competent and efficient; her boss has no complaints about her work. Eleanor doesn’t socialize with her workmates, but then not everybody does or wants to. She’s completely fine, isn’t she?

A bottle or two of vodka helps her get through the weekend. She can go for days without speaking to another human being. She’s a loner, a bit eccentric, maybe more.

She’s very careful with money because she has to be. A penny or two misspent here, means she has to cut back a little there. Her wages cover the basics, but no more. She exists and functions, but doesn’t really enjoy her life.

Raymond, the computer guy, is also a loner, but in a different way to Eleanor.
Raymond, the computer guy, is also a loner, but in a different way to Eleanor. | Source

Tech Whizz-Kid and All-Round Nice Guy

Raymond, the firm’s IT support person, is the catalyst for changing the course of Eleanor’s life. There’s no romance, just a slow, awakening of the complexities of friendship, and her introduction to what a normal social life may look like.

Eleanor’s computer has a problem, and she reluctantly contacts a tech person to help get her workday back on track. When he appears, she doesn’t like him very much. In her opinion he’s scruffy, dirty, and has no manners. In addition, he smokes, and wears trainers instead of proper shoes; both habits she abhors.

She has no reason to see him again, but a chance encounter outside work, and a random act of kindness, get her accidently involved in helping to save an old man’s life. Eleanor has a long way to go to turn her life around, but the journey starts here.

The backdrop to this story is dark; abuse, mental illness, and a broken childhood.
The backdrop to this story is dark; abuse, mental illness, and a broken childhood. | Source

Childhood Trauma, Loneliness, and Mental Illness

Kindness and caring about others are the messages at the heart of this book. How much do we really know about our co-workers? A cursory enquiry to an acquaintance “Did you have a good weekend?” may often get a bland reply like “Great, thanks” that tells you nothing at all. Is that answer really true? Or is it a cover for an empty social life, or worse? A city is a lonely place if you have no friends or family, and a past you try to keep hidden.

As the story unfolds, the reader learns that Eleanor Oliphant has had a deeply traumatic past, both as a child and as an adult. The clues are released slowly, and as I don’t want to spoil the surprise, I won’t give too much detail here.

I found the revelations sad, but realistic. I have read real-life news stories about abusive relationships, and childhoods spent in care-homes that echo the events of this tale. In my opinion, the author has done a great job of highlighting some of the darker aspects of modern society, yet at the same time she injects a ray of hope. She has managed to create an uplifting and life-affirming book out of tragic events.

Trauma, Empathy, Isolation, and Healing

Book Club Discussion Questions

This message of this novel has stayed with me long after I finished reading it. I keep thinking about key incidents in the book; the effect of social isolation, the small acts of kindness that had a big impact on the recipients.

I belong to a book group, and this novel provoked a lot of heated debate around its representation of mental illness, abuse, and autism. Some people argued that it trivialized serious issues, but I felt the author had successfully used the story as a gentle introduction to some challenging topics.

  1. Did you enjoy reading this book?
  2. Was the story believable?
  3. Were there any parts of the story that made you feel uncomfortable?
  4. What was the most memorable event in the book? Did it make you laugh, or cry?
  5. What was the main theme of the book?
  6. Has it made you think differently about the people you work with, your neighbors, your friends?
  7. Do you think Eleonor will be completely fine in the future? And what about Raymond?

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Comments

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  • Pamela99 profile image

    Pamela Oglesby 

    5 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

    Thank you for such a good review of this book and I think I would like to read it.

  • Eurofile profile image

    Liz Westwood 

    5 weeks ago from UK

    As many are reading more than ever in lockdown, this is a very timely review. It also sounds like some of the subjects it addresses are very relevant to us now.

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