Over the past few months it has seemed that reviews of Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine have been just about everywhere in the book blogging world. I was stuck on a hold queue for the audiobook at the LA Library for well over a month before getting access to the book in August, shortly before my trip home to Milan. I had just finished Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall in audiobook, which was an absolutely engrossing and rewarding experience (listen to it rather than read it if you haven’t yet!), so my expectations with regards to audiobooks were extremely high.
If you’re traipsing around Milan eating gelato but keep finding yourself thinking back to that audiobook waiting for you at home at the end of the day, that’s a good sign. I avidly finished listening to Eleanor’s story in just a few days. Despite being a much simpler and shorter experience than the lengthy historical tome that preceded it, within a couple chapters, I was completely captivated by Eleanor. I would rank Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine up there as one of the best books I’ve read this year, and I think it would make my Top 100 of all time if I ever sat dawn to draw it up one day. I couldn’t believe it when I read that this is author Gail Honeyman’s debut novel! That’s truly astounding because her characters are so compelling, fully-formed and sympathetic. Sign me up to read anything else she may publish in the future.
Eleanor Oliphant by Gail Honeyman
Narrated by Cathleen McCarron (Audiobook Review)
Publication Date: May 9th 2017
Publisher: Viking – Pamela Dorman Books
(Audiobook published by Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group)
Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)
Meet Eleanor Oliphant. She struggles with appropriate social skills and tends to say exactly what she’s thinking. Nothing is missing in her carefully time-tabled life of avoiding social interactions, where weekends are punctuated by frozen pizza, vodka, and phone chats with Mummy.
Then everything changes when Eleanor meets Raymond, the bumbling and deeply unhygienic IT guy from her office. When she and Raymond together save Sammy, an elderly gentleman who has fallen on the sidewalk, the three become the kinds of friends who rescue one another from the lives of isolation they have each been living–and it is Raymond’s big heart that will ultimately help Eleanor find the way to repair her own profoundly damaged one.
What I Liked
The protagonist. It took me a few chapters to warm up to Eleanor – my first impression of her was that she was hopelessly weird, but within minutes I found myself relating to the thoughts that permeated her stream of consciousness. The reader spends a lot of time within Eleanor’s mind in this book, listening to her talk to herself about the circumstances of her life and the people around her. At first, her thoughts seemed hard to relate to, but soon enough I realized that Eleanor is only slightly weirder than the average person, myself included. Due to her sheltered upbringing and childhood experiences, she certainly is less connected to society than the average human being, and yet she struggles with many of the same things regular people often do. Things like whether to go along with social expectations and customs or flout them, whether people she interacts with are being honest in their words and actions, and how best to spend her time. She’s a kook alright, so don’t expect your average heroine, but I found myself agreeing with her over and over again, so I guess I’m a kook too!
“There are days when I feel so lightly connected to the earth that the threads that tether me to the planet are gossamer thin, spun sugar. A strong gust of wind could dislodge me completely, and I’d lift off and blow away, like one of those seeds in a dandelion clock. The threads tighten slightly from Monday to Friday.”
The humor and heart. This book is at times very funny. I’m talking about chortle under your breath to yourself funny, but also spurt out your tea mid-sentence funny. Eleanor’s fish out of water moments are part of what make her story amusing, but she also has a bruising, razor-sharp sarcasm, derived from her superior intelligence, that really hit my dry humor spot (see quotes below). At first, the book feels a bit dark, with Eleanor looking out from within at the life happening all around her but not joining in. Soon enough, though, things start happening TO Eleanor instead of just in her vicinity. The agent of change in Eleanor’s life is jovial, average-joe Raymond. Their interactions are hugely awkward and downright hilarious, but they force Eleanor out of her bubble, and the reader with her, to face life out in the unpredictable open world. As someone who can be somewhat antisocial myself (often home with a book rather than mixing with the general population), I cringed with Eleanor as Raymond’s voluntary and involuntary interventions upset her routine, but also couldn’t wait to see what would happen next to the duo I came to care so much about. The book ultimately is about real genuine connections between human beings and about how it’s these connections that give meaning to life.
“She had tried to steer me towards vertiginous heels again – why are these people so incredibly keen on crippling their female customers? I began to wonder if cobblers and chiropractors had established some fiendish cartel.”
“There was nothing to tempt me from the choice of desserts, so I opted instead for a coffee, which was bitter and lukewarm. Naturally, I had been about to pour it all over myself but, just in time, had read the warning printed on the paper cup, alerting me to the fact that hot liquids can cause injury. A lucky escape, Eleanor! I said to myself, laughing quietly. I began to suspect that Mr. McDonald was a very foolish man indeed, although, judging from the undiminished queue, a wealthy one.”
The audiobook narration. The novel is set in Scotland and I doubt that in reading it in its paper format, I would have felt as grounded in the setting as I was able to through Cathleen McCarron’s excellent narration. Her authentic Scottish accent and ability to give each of the primary characters their own distinctive voice really helped bring the book to life for me. I think listening to the book in audiobook rather than reading it also helped with the significant portions in the book in which Eleanor is alone or talking to herself. Hearing Mccarron narrate those sections made Eleanor’s thoughts as vivid as if they were occurring in my own mind, and I thought McCarron’s interpretation of Eleanor’s despairing moments was particularly poignant. The only character whose voice felt a bit overdone and improbable was that of Eleanor’s mother, who had a rasping, half-whispered and variable interpretation in McCarron’s narration that felt a bit too wicked-witch in a fairytale for me.
What I Didn’t Like
Some slight cheesiness. As I may have already mentioned, I loved this book. It made me think about my own capacity and propensity for connecting with others, the importance of the friends and family in my life, and my attitude towards the world at large. It also made me feel sad, happy, amused and befuddled right alongside Eleanor. However, for those who don’t like feel-good stories, beware. (slight spoiler ahead) Occasionally the novel can feel slightly simplistic and borderline cheesy, especially with relation to Eleanor’s past or the ending of the novel. I think the author was purposefully writing something that would make people feel hopeful about their lives and the people around them – make them take a second look at those they’d been taking for granted or at whether there was anything they could do in their own lives to connect more with their environment. I thoroughly welcomed and enjoyed that intention, and I felt that the more heart-warming and obvious parts of the novel were very well balanced with its grittiness and bleakness in other portions.
Disturbing at times, and at others funny and heart-warming, this debut novel is a deft balance of gritty and light like its compelling central heroine Eleanor. It will make you think hard about friendship, society and about your connections to others in the world.
About The Author
Gail Honeyman wrote her debut novel, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, while working a full-time job, and it was shortlisted for the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize as a work in progress. She has also been awarded the Scottish Book Trust’s Next Chapter Award 2014, was longlisted for BBC Radio 4’s Opening Lines, and was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize. She lives in Glasgow.
Have you read Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine or listened to the audiobook? What did you think? Let me know in the comments.
You can also read my other recent Just Read reviews, including for biography Diana: Her True Story – In Her Own Words by Andrew Morton, political memoir Who Thought This Was A Good Idea by Alyssa Mastromonaco, historical crime mystery Death Of A Nationalist by Rebecca Pawel, or financial advice book Worth It By Amanda Steinberg.
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