“Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine” by Gail Honeyman

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I picked up this book from the library on the basis of its title alone — I had never heard of the name “Oliphant” before. Not only was it intriguing, it also sounded kind of funny, leading me to think that perhaps this would be a comedy. It was fiction, of course, and for some reason, fictional comedies are not very common — in fact, most fiction is extremely serious, faithfully mirroring life itself, which, by and large, is rarely funny for most people.

It turns out that I was partly, but not completely, right. The book is a comedy of sorts but at the basis of it is a tragic story. The title character, Eleanor Oliphant, is a thirty year old woman who has been so deeply traumatized by an event in her childhood that she has completely blocked it out and lives like an automaton — she has had the same job (an accountant in a graphics design firm) since she graduated from university; she goes to work every weekday at the same time; has lunch in the break room while solving the daily crossword puzzle in the newspaper; returns home in the evening at the same time after work; reads, listens to the radio, or watches TV before going to bed; drinks vodka on Friday evenings; and spends the weekends doing errands and waiting for Mondays. She doesn’t socialize and has no friends. Her footprint on the earth is so light, the ties that bind her to it are so tenuous, that, as she puts it: “It often feels as if I’m not here, that I’m a figment of my own imagination.”

Things change for Eleanor, when she has a chance encounter with Raymond, the IT guy in her firm, who she had to summon to fix her computer after it was infected by a virus. They gradually become friends, especially after they happen to rescue — one day after work when they are leaving their office building together by chance — an elderly man who passes out on the street. After summoning medical help, they continuing to visit him in the hospital, often together, and also get close to the members of his family who are extremely grateful to them for their help. Raymond and Eleanor start meeting for lunch occasionally at work. Raymond also invites Eleanor to one of his weekly visits to his mother, who is a sweet old lady and helps to give Eleanor a sense of warmth and caring that she never got from her own mother.

The big reveal at the end of the book is what exactly happened to Eleanor as a child to make her what she is, and how she comes to terms with it. She starts getting therapy, gets promoted at her job, and starts interacting with her co-workers, which she didn’t at all before. There is no definite romantic conclusion for Eleanor and Raymond by the end of the book — they just are very good friends — but the door is certainly open to the possibility.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine was a sweet, heart-warming story, which was very easy to read. As I said earlier, it was also comic in parts, with the humor coming from Eleanor’s unusual, almost OCD-like thinking and behavior. I also appreciated that Raymond was far from the traditional hero who steps in to rescue the “damsel in distress” — he is not at all handsome, has a pot-belly and a receding hairline, and has several annoying habits that are off-putting to Eleanor, such as eating with his mouth open and constantly smoking. Yet, he is a really nice, good-hearted man, whose friendship is what ultimately helps Eleanor to confront and overcome her demons.

Still, the overall story seems a little “too good to be true,” with Eleanor’s many years of isolation, friendless existence, and automated living, all “healed” within a span of a few months after meeting Raymond. It is hard to believe that no one has, until now, reached out to her, given that she is a nice person at heart, despite the seemingly wacky exterior. The book is a bit of a fairy tale in that respect, which is why it will not be taken too seriously in literary circles — it is simply not realistic or sophisticated enough to win critical acclaim. But it is very well written, nice, and sweet, and we all could all do with reading fairy tales with “happily ever after” endings sometimes, even when we are all grown up.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine
Author: Gail Honeyman
Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books
Publication Date: May 2017

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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