book review: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Overview: Eleanor Oliphant lives a small, isolated life. She doesn't have any family, her and her coworkers have fundamentally different worldviews, and she lives her life in a cycle of going to work, going home, and drinking vodka alone all weekend. Mostly, that's fine. Fine as in, there's really not much of a way to change what exists so you live with it. And then Raymond joins the firm working IT and isn't frightened by Eleanor's affinity for saying it like it is and choosing the biggest words possible to do it. She starts to form a friendship with him that cracks open her world little by little and slowly unveils the layers of trauma that have calcified her into the person she's become at thirty. Overall: 4.5
Characters: 5 Eleanor has a distinct voice that will grab you from the first page with her odd observations about just about everything. On many subjects, I agreed with Eleanor who's unafraid to point out the stupid or silly conventions we've all agreed are just part of being human. My heart ached as I related to her musings on loneliness and how easy it is to go days without speaking during the stretch of the weekend. Eleanor has clearly picked up her way of conducting herself from some kind of impactful event, and that's shared in bits and pieces as the story evolves including an abusive parent, profound loss, a fire that left scars, and a turn in foster care where she learned just how on her own she is. While I love Eleanor's character, and I was curious to learn the full depths of what happened to her, it did feel like Honeyman laid on these traumas a bit thick where it just continued escalating and escalating to try to get the next shred of shock factor rather than really honing into the true nuance as Eleanor confronts her past to grow in the future.
Along the way, there's a collection of random characters that start to prove to Eleanor that the world isn't always dark and grim. Raymond takes an instant liking to Eleanor and develops a genuine curiosity about getting to know her. He helps her slowly acclimate to the idea that a person could care for her with no string attached and simply just want the best for her. Early in their acquaintance, they help an elderly man who has a medical emergency on the street, and the man and his family become another thread in Eleanor's growing web community. While Eleanor is the most developed and really only essential character in the narrative, each person she crosses paths with that extends a kindness helps Eleanor heal in small and imperceptible ways that build into a major impact. And the side characters all have their own defining joys to make the journey even more interesting.
Plot: 4 I enjoyed observing Eleanor's evolution of learning to trust the world once again and therefore giving her a new chance at life. It's a slow metamorphosis and comes through well in anecdotes and in the way that Eleanor is written. There's a good mix of shorter chapters that keep the plot moving and longer chapters for scenes that are more important and are given more emphasis. I really enjoyed the first segment of the book, and the second was interesting as well. The final segment, though having some admirable parts, just weakened the book in my view. It's supposed to be the great unveiling of all the trauma that made Eleanor into the particular person she is. It comes after a dramatic moment where Eleanor wants to drown herself in alcohol after a fantasy crush comes to an end, a storyline that was already teetering. This segment just feels overwrought, and while I like that Eleanor goes to therapy to work through her trauma finally and gets professional help to aid her evolution, it felt like there were some stumbles in really telling this story with proper sensitivity, and in its ambition to up the shock factor about what happened to Eleanor with each chapter, the book lost a bit of the quiet, open, relatable charm. The book just didn't feel quite sure enough of itself to trust that this metamorphosis of a girl who faced parental abuse and learned to trust again was enough.
Writing: 4 Honeyman is great at crafting character voice. That is absolutely undeniable and is responsible for most of the book's success. She does a great job slowly evolving the voice and cadence to reflect Eleanor's evolution in a subtle and really gratifying way, and the anecdote she chooses to illustrate these lessons have a sweet humor to them that cut into some of the darkness that surrounds the story. I wanted to keep reading, and I fell into the story effortlessly. I can see why the book was so incredibly popular, even still in 2019 when I sold tons of copies off the paperback bestseller display.
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