Solitary Confinement…….

….Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Book Review. Scottish Fiction.

June 2017

The American writer, Brandon Sanderson, once compared expectations to fine pottery….‘the harder you hold them, the more likely they are to crack!’.

Before I’d read Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine I had expectations of this book as ‘Bridget Jones for the noughties’…… for no more solid reason than the book seemed to be everywhere….promoted with displays in my local Waterstones, much-lauded by people who I follow on Twitter, frequently popping up in my Instagram stream, glowingly reviewed in the Guardian. But hey….. I was ok with that Bridget Jones comparison because I liked Bridget Jones! So heading through Gatwick for a holiday with my family in sunnier climes a couple of weeks ago, I picked up Eleanor Oliphant with the sole intention of reading it to cheer myself up if the weather in Greece wasn’t as sunny as I hoped!

There were no cloudy days, but as the books I’d brought specifically for my holiday ran out, I turned on my last day in the sun to Eleanor Oliphant and a couple of chapters in and I thought those expectations were altered but only slightly…… it was Bridget Jones……… but more ‘Bridget Jones for the socially awkward AND the noughties!!!!!!!!!!’

Eleanor Oliphant’s Checklist For Life!

But from about the third chapter on, those expectations cracked and kept on cracking, for though Eleanor Oliphant retains moments of real joy and laugh out loud comedy to the end, this is a book with much more to say and with much more to make you think than you might expect – or at least more than I might have expected!  But having now read it I can see entirely why Jenny Colgan wrote in the Guardian that Eleanor Oliphant is the kind of book that ‘makes you want to throw a party, invite everyone you know, and give them a hug’.  So if you decide to read on from here, this is your party invite and below is the book blog equivalent of a hug!!!!!!

Eleanor Oliphant’s solitary life is changed when she is struck by Cupid’s arrow in the dubious form of a Glasgow wannabe rock star called Johnnie Lomond. Her choice of @JLomond to be love struck over is odd………………

Johnny Lomond’s hopes, influences and skills are mercilessly and hilariously unfolded in a series of ‘tweets’ throughout the book. To Eleanor, his tweets translate as the perfect combination of  fate and genius rolled into one beautiful package…………….To the rest of us they translate as ‘What an arsehole!

……………. What’s even odder is that she has seen him but never met him, spoken to him or even initially know who he is! But what’s oddest of all in her choice of Johnnie is the fact that she actually comes across him in the first place! But it is all started by fate. Eleanor wins tickets for a pub gig in a charity raffle at work. Where most people would just bury the tickets in the nearest bin, Eleanor feels morally obliged to attend, but she is so isolated, Eleanor has no friends, acquaintances or family and yet her literal approach to things means she can’t not use the second ticket (she’s been ‘lucky’ enough to win a pair of tickets!) and so she offers the second ticket to Billy the office junior and it’s Eleanor’s oddness that causes Billy to accept!

But at the same time as fate intervenes with Cupid’s arrow, it also intervenes with an IT glitch at work. Eleanor’s initial request for the IT support to address her computer problems are brusque to the point of rude, yet they land barely a scratch on the easy-going demeanour of the new company IT technician Raymond. Instead of taking offence, he takes the initiative and slowly starts to befriend Eleanor, which is a task way beyond anything he’s likely to come across in the world of IT. In this he’s assisted by coincidence in the form of an elderly man who just happens to pass out and fall and hit his head on the road outside just as Eleanor and Raymond are leaving the office at the same time!

Fate plays a pretty big part in this book and it’s seldom kind to Eleanor Oliphant. She may be completely fine as far as she is concerned, but her existence is a very solitary life. She goes to work five days out of seven where she is very much the odd one out in the office. She rarely says a word, never joins in discussions and never participates in anything that might be as common as to be deemed ‘communal’! On the other two days of the seven, she is always alone and Friday nights to Monday mornings consist purely of food, books and vodka. Eleanor’s only human interaction over a weekend is only with her local shopkeeper with whom she exchanges polite pleasantries as she stocks up on food and of course the obligatory vodka. It’s the epitome of loneliness and isolation and seems all the more stark when set against the backdrop of today’s inter-connected internet world in which we live.

But spurred on by her belief that fate has great things in store for her with the aforementioned Johnnie Lomond, Eleanor decides her solitary confinement needs to end…… she’s just not sure how to go about it! But as she emerges, almost chrysalis like, from her social isolation, her idiosyncrasies and awkwardness are never far from the surface and the changes she plans and tries to enact are genuinely hilarious and laugh out loud funny! The comedy of Eleanor’s thoughts and life is really well written… while there’s certainly more than an element of laughing ‘at’ Eleanor’s predicament and behaviours, it’s also subtle enough to ensure that you are laughing with Eleanor at times and laughing at yourself as the reader at the same time!

But for all that the book is enjoyable for those comedic moments, there’s a feel of real pathos and sorrow throughout. The loneliness and isolation that Eleanor lives in is undercut by the unfolding back story. There are shadows and skeletons in Eleanor Oliphant’s past and they return with harrowing consequences to both make her the social outsider that she is and to potentially stop her transforming into the socially more at ease woman you just know she wants to become. It’s impossible to write of the back story without it becoming ‘spoilers’ but it is this background and the way it unfolds that gives the book its depth, its emotion and its warmth. Equally it’s this back-story, which transforms Eleanor Oliphant from a Bridget-Jones-esque caricature of loneliness, into a complex, engaging, tragic and utterly memorable character.

As I read this book I couldn’t help reflect that for all Eleanor’s collection of mannerisms and idiosyncrasies are genuinely funny, what really does matter is the story behind them and the person behind them.  Or to put it another way I started this book expecting to read about the oddities of a woman who has chosen social isolation, but instead I ended up reading a book about a woman who social isolation has chosen. Instead of the light and easy comedy I was expecting, what ‘Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine’ served up for me was a wonderful observation of how we live today and a sharp depiction of what a modern-day scourge loneliness can be.

As a book, Eleanor Oliphant surpassed my expectations and then some……. So Eleanor Oliphant Is NOT Completely Fine……. Eleanor Oliphant is MUCH, MUCH, MUCH, BETTER THAN FINE!!!!

BOOK RATING - 9

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman was published by Harper Collins in May 2017

 

Since it’s recent publication Eleanor Oliphant has gathered praise from the media and from lots of other book bloggers. Though in some ways the praise and it’s obvious success from the day it was launched are not that unexpected – back in 2014 it was shortlisted for the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize (which is an award especially for unpublished female writers). It was also shortlisted for the Scottish Book Trust Next Chapter Award in 2014 and chosen as one of the fiction debuts of 2017 by The Observer newspaper. If you’re interested in reading a bit more about Gail Honeyman and the writing process for Eleanor Oliphant, there’s a really good QandA with her on one of Foyles Author Pages

 

The promotion and success of this book means there are already quite a few book blog reviews of it out there. Most of those I’ve read seemed to like it as much and sometimes even more than I did so there’s plenty to choose from but personally I liked the reviews at Debbish Dot Com and at Jo’s Book Blog.

 

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