Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is on The Library Shelf today

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman reviewed by Charles HarrisIt’s an unlikely best-seller. A darkly humorous novel about a dowdy young woman with an abusive mother. who she only speaks to on the phone, and develops a crush on a fifth-rate rock singer. But Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine has been a smash hit across the world.

The debut novel by author Gail Honeyman in her forties (I’m jealous) has already won the Costa First Novel Award 2017, been longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 and a number one Sunday Times bestseller. And to put the icing on the cake it is slated to be a Hollywood movie, produced by Reese Witherspoon.

Forget S&M

Forget Fifty Shades of Grey S&M heroines, Harry Potter or Robert Langdon cracking Da Vinci’s infamous code, Eleanor Oliphant is the kind of person we all know. The one who makes herself out to be plainer than she is, eats the same lunch every day and lives on two bottles of vodka a night.

But, as Honeyman writes her, she is also very funny. Eleanor’s lack of understanding of the world could have been used for crass jokes. Instead, Honeyman uses her as a foil to point up how strange and surreal the real world actually is.

Laugh out loud

The writer’s observation of her catty colleagues is acerbic and very funny. As are the weekly phone calls from her mother, a highly intelligent and cruel woman, with an acid tongue that owes much to Murlel Spark’s Jean Brodie.

But that is only the start. Because Eleanor unexpectedly finds herself desperately in love with a failing rock singer. It’s this that forces her out of her shell. For the first time in her life, she has to engage with the modern world of fashion, computers and buying rounds at the pub.

Which she seems to do with her eyebrows permanently raised. Her dry commentary on the weirdness of matters we take for granted yield many genuinely laugh-out-loud moments.

Such as when she tries to buy a computer for the first time and – asked by the young assistant what she wants to use it for – tells him to mind his own business.

The kindness of friends and strangers

But funny as the novel is, the true impact of this clever, sensitive book is how Honeyman turns it towards the dark.

Gradually, we begin to learn what lies in Eleanor’s past. What the guilt is that she’s been carrying for most of her life. And the truth about her gorgon of a mother.

There are therapy scenes which are quietly but genuinely moving. But what stands out most strongly in the memory, is the kindness of people. Friends as well as strangers.

Set in Glasgow, the book shows us a middle-class side of the city very different from the poverty-porn we see in most British TV and cinema.

Men who collapse in the street are helped. Their families are grateful. New friends are made.

It takes courage to write a novel that combines comedy with emotional punch. But that’s just the kind of unlikely book that this is.

Links

Eleanor Oliphant is Absolutely FineUKUS

Interview with Gail Honeyman

Gail Honeyman Q&A