Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine has attracted a lot of hype, including taking the top spot on the Sunday Times bestseller list. And for me, it lived up to that hype. It is hilarious, touching and immensely enjoyable.
The story centres around the title character’s reinvention after a childhood trauma left her with emotional scars that manifested in some quirky behaviours, from her extravagantly no-nonsense attitude to her very formal approach to even the most light-hearted social interaction. As a result, she found herself alone, but ‘fine’.
However, when she and a colleague help an elderly man who falls in the street, her life takes a turn and she sets off on a new path.
Just like in books such as The Rosie Project and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, it is the main character’s unorthodox approach to the everyday that is so endearing and fascinating, and provides the book with a gentle humour.
As a commuter, I loved Eleanor’s game upon boarding a bus: “one had ten seconds to scan the occupants and select the slimmest, sanest, cleanest-looking person to sit next to. Choose wrongly, and the fifteen-minute journey into town would be a much less pleasant experience…Such was the excitement of travelling on public transport.”
Alas, Eleanor’s game comes undone when a moment of kindness from a seemingly insane commuter reveals that everything is not as it seems – a realisation that is part of her metamorphasis.
There is her sometimes brutal commentary on her new friend, Raymond, and her undisguised disgust at his messy way of eating, his gait and his fashion sense, and the truths that result from her literal and no-nonsense approach to conversation. When she is at a party and a man asks if he can buy her a drink, she says, “No thank you. I don’t want to accept a drink from you, because then I would be obliged to purchase one for you in return, and I’m afraid I’m simply not interested in spending two drinks’ worth of time with you.”
Workplace social dynamics are a minefield for Eleanor, who hits on some uncomfortable and hilarious truths, from the ‘welcome back’ sponge one of her colleagues thoughtfully bakes for staff – “Dry doesn’t even come close to describing the arid desert texture”, to the etiquette of staff room conversation.
While the awkward social encounters and Eleanor’s naivety is funny, the book touches on depths of darkness and pain, both from past trauma and the resulting crippling isolation that Eleanor faces. This underlying storyline, and the psychology of loneliness and guilt that underpin Eleanor’s behaviour, makes this book far more than a sweet, funny novel. At times, it is also heartbreaking, especially when Eleanor experiences rare moments of intimacy. However, despite this sad undertone, there is an overwhelming sense of hope in Eleanor’s resilience, and her survival against the odds.
This book was a joy to read, leaving me with a sense of warmth, positivity and hope. And I know that Eleanor and Raymond are two characters that I will remember, and miss.