Book Club member reviews: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

By Angela Paul, Spring Chicken Book Club member

Sometimes a book receives so much hype that it’s hard to believe it could live up to it’s press.

Thankfully this is not the case with this fantastic debut from Gail Honeyman.

From the very first page I was completely hooked by this tale of a seemingly very quirky, if not downright unlikeable, woman.

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Eleanor’s life is empty.  She goes to work, where she doesn’t mix with her colleagues (in fact she is positively on the outside), eats the same thing week in week out and spends her weekend alone drinking vodka.  The last visitor to her flat was social services, as they carried out one of their six monthly checks.

Here is the first sign that all is not as it seems within Eleanor’s life.  It’s not that she’s unlikeable but just very damaged.  Hints are dropped throughout about the nature of her troubled childhood, at the hands of a cruel and heartless mother. The sort of childhood that nobody would be able to emerge from without serious issues surrounding trust and love.

Suddenly though things are about to change.  Eleanor unexpectedly finds the man of her dreams – a singer.  It doesn’t matter that he has no idea that she exists, and in fact that he is probably a bit of an idiot, she starts to build a dream around their future life together.

Meanwhile, amidst the dreaming, in real life she has made a connection with Raymond, the new IT guy at work.  Almost against her will, he has started to draw her out of her shell and, when they come to the rescue of a man who has collapsed in the street, she starts to realise that a little kindness to those around her can go a long way.

This one event is the beginning of her way into back into the human race, as her friendship grows with Raymond and she becomes involved with the man’s family.  By pushing herself out of her comfort zone she is reaping huge reward.

This is the joy of this book, although massive changes are occurring in her life it’s all happening in a gentle and considered way.   There is a bolt of lightning moment when Eleanor realises her dreams are pure fantasy and it looks like all her progress is going to unravel and she will become a victim of her past.

This is the catalyst for her to finally face those demons and deal with the relationship she has with her mother.

There is some dark stuff to follow but there is also so much humour running through the entire book that you always maintain a feeling of hope and joy.  Even at the start, when we know very little about Eleanor, and probably shouldn’t like her, her sheer awkwardness creates some laugh out loud moments and you can’t help but love her.

I raced through this book because I literally did not want to put it down.  It felt like a small death when it ended and I would dearly love to know what happens next (but maybe that’s best left to our imagination).

 

By Clare Riley, Spring Chicken Book Club member

Eleanor lives by her routines. Every weekday morning she gets up at the same time, starts work at the same time, buys a newspaper at the same place which she always reads all of and completes the crossword in. She leaves work at 5.30 every day, travels home the same way and listens to The Archers as she makes pasta and pesto with salad (which requires one pan and one plate). She goes to bed at the same time, 10pm, every evening. Wednesday, ‘Mummy’ always phones and talks to her for 10 minutes.

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On Friday nights after work, she buys pizza and two bottles of vodka, that she will drink over the course of the weekend, on her own. She spends all week on her own. Eleanor has no friends, she believes that she doesn’t need any either.
Then Eleanor sees him: the man who she becomes obsessed with, the man who Mummy never believes she will be able to attract, and Eleanor decides to reinvent herself so that he will become interested in her.

Some of these reinvention ‘adventures’ are hilarious, and include things that all women do: self- grooming, in particular. The waxing incident had me in stitches!
At work, things change when she meets Ray from IT when he comes to mend her computer. He’s affable, gentle and intrigues by Eleanor. She however is not at all interested, and her sights are set elsewhere. After work one day, Ray and Eleanor are walking home when they come upon an elderly man, Sammy, who has collapsed in the street. They help him, call an ambulance, and so a friendship is begun. Eleanor’s life is opened up, whether she wants it to or not.

Eleanor tells her own story, and we go along for the ride as she shares her story and learns how to actually live. Secrets she has even kept from herself for years, are revealed.
There are many funny parts to this story, and they are painfully funny. Eleanor’s lack of social skills is evident. I didn’t feel that fun was being poked at Eleanor, but we are encouraged to laugh at the situation and therefore learn about how difficult Eleanor’s life is. There are parts of the story where laughter is very far from the mind. I found parts to be very emotional and so, so sad.

I honestly didn’t want to leave Eleanor Oliphant’s world. The story really doesn’t end at the end of the book, and we are left with the impression that Eleanor’s story will continue in her ‘book universe’. Ultimately, this book is an interesting commentary of modern life and our biggest problem – loneliness. We are the generation of social media, internet and gadgets, and we have left behind our human kindness. We are a social animal that no longer seems to be social. All so wrapped up in our own little worlds, that we don’t realise we’re missing that connection with real human beings, and don’t see when there are others around us who are lonely and need the contact of others.

This is such an enjoyable, funny, heartwarming and heart wrenching and above all, hopeful book. I would heartily recommend it, particularly to those who enjoyed “A Man Called Ove’, ‘The Rosie Project’ and more recently ‘The Cactus’. It’s never overly sentimental, but it IS full of heart.

Highly recommended, with a solid 5/5

 

By Rebecca Masterman, Spring Chicken Book Club member

Eleanor Oliphant is not just completely fine…Eleanor Oliphant is completely absorbing.

A dependable office worker, reliable and mostly inconspicuous, Eleanor spends her evenings and weekends sticking to a strict diet of pasta and vodka, reading, listening to the radio…and taking a weekly telephone call from Mummy.  And, of course, there is a dark secret and she is far from fine. But there is so much more to this book.

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Eleanor is markedly lacking in social skills, taking everything at its literal meaning, which made me wonder why the rest of us tend not to and how much simpler life would be if we did. It is, after all, others who disrupt and complicate her routine. But through a burgeoning friendship at work and a misguided love she begins to acquire an understanding of and liking for human interaction. She approaches social occasions as projects to be researched, learnt and successfully accomplished, discovering as she does so that some aspects are actually enjoyable…try not to smile next time you hear The Village People.   She slowly realises that there could be more to life than accounts payable, even for Eleanor, no matter what Mummy says and her acceptance that change is possible and empathy not beyond her, leads to…well, no spoilers here!

I generally like quite “high brow” reading, something which requires a good deal of thought but now and then I like an easier read, although I am usually put off because often, an easy read is too easy and too simply written.  This is neither but nevertheless this is a brilliant, easy read.

Throughout the book the voice and language are Eleanor’s, the perception is Eleanor’s.  All are a little quirky, pedantic and painfully precise, displaying a naïveté which I found charming and an awkwardness which is awkward only to others. The correctness of phrase, Eleanor’s own words, does not hamper the flow of reading, but presents her as the somewhat reserved, inhibited, faltering woman that she is when out of her familiar and regimented comfort zone.  I liked the style but then I liked Eleanor, very much.

There are quite a few laugh out loud moments and many moments of gentle, often dark (though not to Eleanor) humour and many, many moments of pathos.

This book requires some thought and involvement and belief so will satisfy those who like to think as they read. It’s not soppy, it’s not florid and it’s not predictable. It is funny, it is moving and it will perhaps make you see others differently, especially those who don’t fit in so readily. Everybody has a story, we all have something not visible at first glance and we are all moulded by something which has gone before…but moulds can be broken.

This is Gail Honeyman’s first novel and for me, what makes it so great is not the plot, which frankly is nothing new, but her creation of Eleanor, who is so believable that I am convinced she is the real author. Whilst I look forward to the next book, it is really Eleanor’s voice I look forward to hearing again, such was my fascination with this unfortunate, likeable soul and such is my hope of once again sharing a cheese scone with her.

 

By Beverly Curry, Spring Chicken Book Club member

An excellent debut novel; this is a precise and well written story which records the voyage of self-discovery of the protagonist, Eleanor Oliphant.

Eleanor is an articulate, intelligent and educated woman who is ‘different’ and as the pages turn we begin to understand why this is so and our empathy for her as a character grows as we read.

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We experience this learning journey alongside Eleanor as she learns the ways of the world, ways which the world deems normal but which are, in fact, anything but.

To see the world through the eyes of Eleanor Oliphant, to walk in her (velcro-ed) shoes for a while is refreshing, enlightening and poignant. She has taught me many things in seeing life from a different perspective … not to be so judgmental … to be more compassionate … to be more forgiving.

I like Eleanor Oliphant – the novel and the person! She has made me laugh out loud and at times made me sad. I have cringed as I have read, willing her not to say the thing you know that she inevitably will say. But she has made me look at myself, at my lifestyle and values and reassess them somewhat. I certainly feel I can and should count my blessings having read this book. I recall snippets of the book as I go about my day to day life and she causes me to smile: sitting on a bus the other day I watched each boarding passenger, they did indeed scan the seats carefully before deciding where to sit and I found myself ridiculously pleased when a young man boarded and after the said examination of the several available seats chose to sit next to me!

I really enjoyed the matter-of-fact, understated way things are described when they could so easily have been sensationalised and thus have lost their impact. The darker incidents and relationships recorded are topical as we are becoming more aware of narcissistic abuse as it is highlighted in the press and on social media.

I enjoyed the little touches of detail that are liberally included throughout the book, details which made me laugh and cry in equal measure. A couple of examples, won’t give too much away but will convey the flavour of the text:

‘The barman was well over six feet tall and had created strange, enormous holes in his earlobes by inserting little black, plastic circles in order to push back the skin. For some reason, I was reminded of my shower curtain.’

Yes! I wanted to say, yes, that is it exactly!

On being given a Sponge Bob Square Pants helium-filled balloon, Eleanor observes:

‘For my entire life, people have said that I am strange, but really, when I see things like this, I realise that I’m actually relatively normal.’

She’s not wrong!

There are surprises that are unveiled in a believable way as we have been prepared very thoroughly as we have journeyed with her.

We learn how to be supportive, we learn about care and we learn the importance of forgiveness. We see how other characters in the novel are also on this learning journey as they meet, get to know and understand this woman who is living her life amongst them. I also find myself attracted to this assortment of men and women, each with their idiosyncrasies but each endearing themselves to me. The geek who is such a genuine, empathic character warns me not to stereotype people!

I could end my review with the words of Eleanor herself:

‘The whole thing was excruciatingly embarrassing but really, really nice!’

I was made uncomfortable, but I was also warmed and remember my reading of this novel as a very positive experience which I know will linger in my memory for some time to come.

 

 

By Marilyn Anne Newton, Spring Chicken Book Club member

‘Dear Reader I married him : Well, not yet or probably not at all!

Dear Miss Oliphant; Just a note to thank you for allowing me and my reading compatriots to join you on your journey of self realisation and revealing vignettes.

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Dear Eleanor; for now after sharing some of your most intimate details in this first person narrative, I do believe I may now use your first name as a friend and confidante.

Dear Reader; a note of caution as you enter into this friendship with Eleanor, be prepared to laugh, even with embarrassment, as you share her first intimate waxing, remembering the torture not just of the exposure, but also of the unexpected ripping pain and visible results. Similarly, her lack of the social mores of the public house or the nightclub or the rock concert and even of the Take-Away-Pizza Delivery! The frustration at her snobbery and judgemental observations. Then the irritation of her teenage crush on one who certainly does not deserve any of her attention at all: irritation only heightened by her (almost) erotic fantasies of an expected and anticipated relationship with him.

It is so apt that Eleanor’s default reading material is ‘Jane Eyre’ for both little girls suffer an unhappy, lacking in love childhood and both venture on a journey of acceptance of their past and reach a point of a type of forgiveness. But for the reader, the process which Eleanor must undergo, is at times almost too painful to carry.

This experience for the reader is of course the responsibility of Gail Honeyman whose ability to move between the range of narrative voices brings her eponymous heroine into our world – at times too close for comfort. It is the minutia of the so well observed details of  Eleanor’s daily life that draws us into her world. We begin to ask questions: is our new friend somewhere on the autistic spectrum or possibly displaying signs of OCD?  We want answers to our questions about Eleanor’s mother – an ominous presence of the highest order. It is the intimacy of our developing friendship with Eleanor that elicits, at times, even verbal responses to her narrative: not just a laugh or sigh of irritation, a ‘No!’ ; ‘OMG” then an intake of breath at the horror revealed to us alongside Eleanor. But finally, at last, a relaxing of the breath and the shoulders and the heartbeat slows with the recognition that our friend will not merely survive, but will flourish and be content with her life and her future.

So Dear Reader, do not be perturbed by what awaits you in this exceptional narrative. The well drawn characters you will meet will become part of Eleanor’s expanding world and be as important to her recovery as to our enjoyment of Gail Honeyman’s absorbing storytelling.

 

By Kathleen Howell, Spring Chicken Book Club member

I completely fell in love with Eleanor Oliphant and really enjoyed reading this book.

When we first meet Eleanor, she is very detached from her work colleagues and leads a very solitary life. She has a rigid weekly plan and is unhappy if things happen that alter this and small comments are made that suggest that Eleanor’s history is not a simple one.

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Things begin to change for her when she attends a concert and develops a crush on the lead singer of the group. She is convinced that they are made for each other and goes out of her way to track him and also to change her style of dressing and bring herself up to date. She buys a computer to track him and finds that he lives nearby. She also buys new clothes and shoes, has her hair styled and has her makeup and nails done. However, the reality is very different from her dreams and expectations and when she attends a concert and her crush comes crashing down around her when she sees the singer in his true light and realises that he is not at all the person she had created in her mind. This is devastating and precipitates events that she has clearly planned for some time.

When Eleanor has a problem with her computer in the office she meets Raymond from the IT department. They begin to tentatively develop a friendship, which is strengthened when they help an elderly man who has been taken ill in the street. They meet his family and then begin to spend some lunch hours together. Eleanor is also invited to meet Raymond’s mother, who accepts her and enjoys her company.

Eleanor has been working towards destroying herself and when her dreams come crashing down she puts her plan into action. However, Raymond shows his true friendship and saves her from the consequences of her actions. He helps and supports her as she begins to recover and encourages her to speak to a Councillor. It is this interaction that finally begins to unlock the mystery that surrounds Eleanor and her childhood experiences. She was brought up in care and has hidden the reasons for this in the back of her mind. She has forgotten so much that it takes weeks to talk about her sister and then she has to search online to find reports of the events that have shaped her life. She keeps these and only reads them for the first time when she is with Raymond.

Raymond surprises her and is not shocked by what they read and she realises that she has found a true friend. She is also surprised and delighted when, on her return to work after her illness, her boss is clearly pleased to see her and she receives flowers from her colleagues to show that she is a valued member of staff.

The novel ends as Eleanor starts her long slow recovery and the journey she must take to come to terms with her history.

 

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