It’s been a long time coming, but this week I finally finished my first book of 2020, ‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ by Gail Honeyman. In the past few years, my ability to settle down and read a book has severely dwindled and I’m not sure why.
The most likely culprit is my degree. After studying English Literature for three years at university, I needed a break from analysing words. This is what studying English and poring over paragraphs for hours does to you, whether you like it or not: it forces you to be curious. It instils within you a need to get to the bottom of things, to understand every situation that is happening everywhere, all at once. And it helps you to be empathetic to the many colourful characters of life, because if you read enough you have likely already met them. This skill of deep-thinking, of perception (even if it is false) will never leave me, and I admit I enjoy it whole-heartedly, in the same way a biker bloke fondly gazes at his stationed motorcycle from a distant window.
That is not to say since graduating in 2016 that I have left books alone. Wandering around a dusty bookshop, peeking around shelves and making animal noises at my girlfriend is still my favourite pastime. I have continuously bought books, intending to read them, but my enthusiasm always dried up around page eighteen. Eleanor Oliphant was different. She was transformative and fictional magic. Her logical and no-nonsense attitude towards life and social interactions leaked through the opening chapter and it startled me. It also pleased me. I felt if we met in real life, Eleanor would put me to shame. The dreamer. The writer. The emotional reliance I have on positivity over darkness. She would tell me why I was wrong, in many ways, in a factual and emotionless manner. For that, I liked her immensely and felt compelled to read on.
There were a number of things that stood out to me as I read.
The first was ‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ is a book about grief. The stages of grief, and how it can manifest in different ways, in different objects, in different people. This is shown most evidently when Eleanor develops an intense crush on a man she saw, for the first time, performing on stage at some shitty concert. Eleanor immediately dives into preparations to make herself perfect for him, her remote mother calls this her “project.” It begins with Eleanor showing up at a beauty salon for a bikini wax. Having no idea what any of the waxes were, she decided to opt for a Hollywood on the logical basis in which she navigated the world, the only basis that she knew and understood: because “Holly would, and so would Eleanor.”
Of course, it is Eleanor’s literal approach to everything that confuses people. She comes across odd, but her earnest truth is endearing. On several occasions I found her observations actually brought me to question why modern society is the way it is, with hilarity. My favourite example of this is when she types ‘C U there E’, in response to a work email from Raymond, then promptly sits back, feeling queasy. She then goes on to say:
“Illiterate communication was quicker, that was true, but not by much. I’d saved myself the trouble of typing four whole characters. Still, it was part of my new credo, trying new things. I’d tried it, and I very definitely did not like it. LOL could go and take a running jump. I wasn’t made for illiteracy; it simply didn’t come naturally.”
Anyway, back to her project. As well as becoming completely bare down there, Eleanor gets her nails done (which she was disappointed with), her hair cut (which she liked, saying she felt ‘shiny’) and she buys some suitable outfits for her to wear for the various dates they would go on, so she could look the part. Eleanor does all of this for a man that does not know she exists; her need for him to fall in love with her shapes her thoughts, drives her motivations, and by extension, outlines the plot. Without trying to give too much away, it doesn’t work out.
What Eleanor uncovers is her obsession with this stranger is burying a huge void of grief. It hangs over her, every day. She bears the scars of it on her face, and she even wears it on her name, ‘Oliphant’, a surname given to protect her in the media and as she grew up, unloved, in the care system. However, the hopeful narrative that this book clings onto was that grief can come and go. It can get worse and it can get better again. It can show up unexpectedly, overtime, or it can present itself suddenly, without warning. For Eleanor, grief patterns her behaviour and consumes her life, almost unknowingly. We each have our own experiences or thoughts about grief. Gail Honeyman conveys beautifully that whilst grief cannot be wholly defeated, we learn through Eleanor that it can be carefully controlled – you can live again.
The second thing I discovered was loneliness, the way it is confronted (or not confronted) by Eleanor, and how sad it is. On an average weekend, Eleanor does not speak to anyone from the moment she requests a ticket from the bus driver on a Friday night after work, to when she greets the bus driver’s colleague on a Monday morning. She is used to loneliness, and it’s almost like a black pit. She falls deeper and deeper into it. A particular quote of Eleanor’s had a profound effect on me on this subject:
“I took one of my hands in the other, tried to imagine what it would feel like if it was another person’s hand holding mine. There have been times when I felt that I might die of loneliness. People sometimes say they might die of boredom, that they’re dying for a cup of tea, but for me, dying of loneliness is not a hyperbole. When I feel like that, my head drops and my shoulders slump and I ache, I physically ache, for human contact – I truly feel that I might tumble to the ground and pass away if someone doesn’t hold me, touch me.”
Here Eleanor conveys a sense of quiet desperation that I can’t stop thinking about, even still. I sometimes found myself debating whether her loneliness was worse than her grief, because it is so unspeakable. Eleanor compares loneliness to cancer, because no one wants to talk about it, no one likes to admit they are suffering from it, and like her name suggests, it is ‘the oliphant in the room’. Forgive me for my blunt language here, but cancer is different to loneliness in that there is an end to it: you will get rid of it or you won’t. These definitive outcomes are almost comforting, because they are manageable. The same cannot be said of loneliness, which persists on, creeping up on Eleanor day and night.
Given her circumstances, it is not surprising Eleanor is lonely. At thirty years old, the only constant presence in Eleanor’s life has been a plant, which she lovingly calls Polly. During her weeks in bed, off work and plotting the method she should use to kill herself (by far her lowest point in the book), Polly the plant dies. She notes that this is significant, because it is the only living thing that survived the fire of her childhood, besides her.
“Too numb to cry, I dropped the plant into the bin, pot, soil and all, and saw that, throughout all these years, it had been clinging onto life only by the slenderest, frailest of roots.”
The similarity between Polly and Eleanor is left there to soak in her words, and it needs to be addressed. Polly the plant had Eleanor to water her, she at least had an owner – someone to check in on her regularly. Eleanor, however, had been left to fend for herself from the age of ten years old, with no concept of what love, care or healthy nourishment felt like. Throughout her years in care in Glasgow she had been passed from family to family, school to school, like a piece of furniture. This is why, lying on the floor of her flat, full with vodka and barely alive, Eleanor reduces herself to what she literally is: a sack of blood and bones held by a bag of skin, loved by no one. She feels that her life was leading up to this moment, her inevitable death.
Loneliness is often seen in children that were brought up in care, partly because they are so bluntly handled. Eleanor was dealt with by social workers on a telephone, and her history was bound in a thick, battered file which she did not have access to. Ruffling through the papers in this file, Eleanor notes that social workers know more about her past than she does, but even through these official lines of communication within the system there is a distinct lack of care about her. This leads me onto another point the book raises – problems within the care system. None of her social workers stick around for long enough to build a valuable relationship with her. I am lucky enough to have little to no knowledge of the care system, and I felt myself deeply angered by her treatment (or lack of it). I felt it was profound and necessary that through Eleanor’s story, the book sets a foundation to suggest that change is needed within the care system, without placing direct blame on it or anyone. In an interview, Gail Honeyman explains that she was careful when writing to ensure that Eleanor did not feel bitter about her experiences; she does not blame anyone, with the exception of her mother, for what has happened to her. The metaphorical outcome is that Eleanor has risen out of the ashes, burned irreparably but she is not hateful. She is not broken.
One of the reasons I chose to study English literature was how it placed interpretation above correct answers. Yes, this can lead to difficult conversations with lecturers that share different views, and I am not sure how accurately marking is measured due to this (this is a different subject entirely). However, Eleanor’s story provokes numerous conversations, other than the themes of grief and loneliness and the care system that I have touched upon. Themes on addiction, mental health, dysfunctional family dynamics, and most delightfully, friendship in the most unlikely of people. Conversations around such topics have never been more valuable than right now.
I could not tell you precisely why, or how, Eleanor Oliphant wormed her way into our lives. A week on from finishing ‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’, I think of her and her cat, Glen, often – and, like the dreamer I am, I am continuously wishing her well. It is interesting how fictional characters can strike such a powerful impact on us, can set a ground for change, or at the very least, encourage people to be more conscious of each other’s welfare and being kind towards one another in our society. Oh yes, we can take so much good from our dear survivor, Eleanor Oliphant.