When traumatic memories from Eleanor Oliphant’s past lay siege to the fortress she has built around her life, she reaches behind her mattress for a copy of Jane Eyre, a book she has read so often its edges are ‘rounded and softened with years of handling’.
Loneliness is often portrayed as a modern disease – a product of smaller families and transient living – but, 170 years ago, Charlotte Brontë’s stubborn governess understood the burden of enforced solitude. She knew survival depended on developing coping strategies, but also that self-sufficiency – however useful – was no substitute for the joy of human connection. ‘There is no happiness like that of being loved by your fellow creatures, and feeling that your presence is an addition to their comfort,’ Jane says of her growing attachment to, and fear of losing, Edward Rochester and her place at Thornfield Hall
It is this same shift from isolation to intimacy that lies at the heart of Gail Honeyman’s darkly funny debut novel, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. Psychologically damaged by a chronically abusive mother and by the mysterious fire that burned her face, the fiercely intelligent Eleanor shies away from relationships, which have brought her nothing but pain. But the more she detaches herself, the more socially inept she becomes, and so on, until she mutates into the kind of muttering misfit you try to avoid on the bus.
In the book’s epigraph, taken from Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, loneliness is described as growing around an individual ‘like mould or fur, a prophylactic that inhibits contact, no matter how badly contact is desired. Once it becomes impacted, it is by no means easy to dislodge’. This is the state we find Eleanor in as the novel opens. She is ‘completely fine’ only in the sense that her defensive wall, constructed of routine and alcohol, appears impenetrable. On weekdays, she works 9 to 5 in an office, in an archetypal, but unspecified UK town, where she wilfully consolidates her reputation for eccentricity before returning to her house to listen to The Archers or watch a documentary. On Friday nights, she buys Margherita pizza and several bottles of vodka, so she can spend the weekend in a state of oblivion. Yet, for all her idiosyncrasies (and sometimes because of them) Eleanor is immensely likeable. Her quirky views on life, her misperceptions of herself, her inability to understand social cues and her refusal to conform are simultaneously ludicrous and relatable.
Despite its subject matter, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is raucously upbeat. It is full of clever little allusions to Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne – the women’s mutual obsession with their shoes, for example, and a reference to vermillion, which is the colour Judith favours – but it functions more as a rebuke to the former’s unremitting bleakness than a homage. Like Judith, Eleanor is a figure of pity and mockery; she drinks too much and deludes herself about the possibilities of romance with a man who cares nothing for her (local singer Johnnie Lomond) – but Honeyman refuses to write her off as a lost cause. Where Moore suggests Judith’s loneliness and spinsterhood are ineluctable, Honeyman offers hope of a brighter future. Where Moore seems to share the world’s view of his protagonist as ugly and unlovable, Honeyman insists we can all be beautiful, and that no-one – however apparently broken – is irredeemable.
This unshakable optimism, at a time when optimism is in short supply, is why the novel and its first-time author – a 40-something Glasgow University graduate, who enrolled on a Faber Academy writing course – have already attracted so much attention. It is why it won the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize as a work in progress, as well as the Scottish Book Trust’s next chapter award; why it (and a second book) were the subject of an eight-way auction in the UK; and why it attracted advances running into seven-figures after being sold into 27 territories. Last month, Reese Witherspoon’s production company bought the rights to adapt Eleanor Oliphant into a film and it is destined to be a summer hit consumed on beaches from Harris to Honolulu.
Honeyman’s great achievement is to have created a character who is original and compelling, and who quickly worms her way into our affections. Eleanor’s voice – at once prickly and vulnerable, haughty and desperate for affection – is entirely her own, and one of the rewards of the novel is that, while love eventually leaves our heroine rounded and softened like her copy of Jane Eyre, she is never required to surrender her identity. Indeed, as she experiments with different ways of fitting in, she rails against attempts to change her too profoundly. The unwitting recipient of a Hollywood waxing, she castigates the beauty therapist for making her look ‘like a child’. Offered products and brushes by a woman at a make-up-counter, who has given her ‘smoky eyes’ and ‘lips the colour of Earl Haig poppies’, she says: ‘There was literally more chance of me purchasing weapons-grade plutonium.’
Honeyman is a witty writer, who revels in the absurdity of her protagonist. Eleanor has no social filter, so she thinks nothing of telling her doctor her sore back is caused by her heavy breasts – she ‘knows’ this to be true because she’s weighed them on the kitchen scales – or of demanding £3.50 from her work colleague Raymond after offering to buy him a drink. Later, going to hospital to visit Sammy, an old man she and Raymond found collapsed in the street, she swithers over what reading material to take as a gift. ‘I thought carefully and rationally to deduce an answer,’ she says. ‘The only thing I knew for sure about him was that he was an adult male; anything else would be pure speculation. I went with the law of averages, stood on tiptoe and reached up for a copy of Razzle. Job Done.’
But Honeyman never lets the sending-up tip into freak show territory. However offbeat, Eleanor’s observations on life are sharp, wry and refreshing for their lack of pretension. In fact, the novel radiates compassion. As a cast of benevolent characters – Raymond, Raymond’s mother, Sammy, Sammy’s daughter – help Eleanor to reconnect, we witness a touching metamorphosis. As Polly, her treasured pot plant, the only remnant of her pre-fire life, dies, she opens up like a flower towards the sun. The acts of kindness that bring about this transformation – Sammy clasping her hand, Raymond bringing her yellow tulips, Sammy’s daughter giving her a haircut that makes her ‘shiny’ – are such tiny gestures, received with such enormous gratitude, they are humbling.
Another deft touch is the way Honeyman conveys Johnnie Lomond’s delusions of grandeur, and his unsuitability as a prospective partner, through a series of pompous and unEleanor-like tweets. On the night Eleanor plans to attend his gig (and thereby win his love) he writes: ‘Soundcheck:done. Haircut:done. Get your fat backsides down to the Cuttings tonight, mofos. #nextbigthing #handsomebastard.’ Eleanor has to Google ‘mofo’. ‘I must confess to being slightly alarmed by the result. Still, what did I know of the wild ways of rock stars?’
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is entertaining and warm-hearted, but it does have some significant stylistic irritations, the most pronounced of which is Honeyman’s refusal to trust her readers’ inferential instincts. So prone is she to spelling out her themes, and, indeed everything else, it can feel as if you’re reading the novel and the accompanying SparkNotes rolled into one. This would would be off-putting enough if the signposting was being done via an omniscient narrator, but coming directly from Eleanor, whose lack of self-awareness is integral to the novel, it is doubly jarring.
Perhaps Honeyman’s tendency to over-explain is born of under-estimating her target audience’s abilities, but it comes across as patronizing and deprives the reader of any mental challenge. When Eleanor comes out with sentences such as: ‘There are scars on my heart just as thick and disfiguring as those on my face. I know they’re there. I hope some undamaged tissue remains, a patch through which love can come in and flow out,’ you want to scream.
The novel – so strong on the corrosive effects of loneliness – is also much weaker on the impact of trauma. There is one powerful moment near the beginning, when Honeyman successfully captures the panic triggered by flash-backs. ‘In the half-dark, in the full dark, I remember, I remember. Awake in the shadows, two little heartbeats, breath like a knife,’ Eleanor says. But her weekly conversations with her manic, disapproving mother – a riff on Judith Hearne’s conversations with her disapproving aunt – are too overblown and too contrived to be convincing. Equally inauthentic are her sessions with the therapist who helps her confront what happened the day of the fire. Eleanor’s transition, from suppressing the memories to coming to terms with them, is too linear, too simplistic, too straight-out-of-a-psychology-pamphlet to be credible or even interesting.
And again: that need to to spell everything out in the tritest of terms . ‘All of us – and especially young children – need to know we’re loved, valued, accepted and understood,’ the therapist tells Eleanor. ‘I said nothing. This was news to me. It sounded plausible, but it was a concept I’d need to consider at more length in the privacy of my own home,’ she muses. If only it were this easy to undo decades worth of mental turmoil, there would be fewer Eleanors in the world.
For those in need of a quick pick-me-up, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine will serve as a great tonic. A feel-good page-turner, imbued with tenderness, it fosters a sense of altruism and well-being. Eleanor’s dark back story and her ‘journey’ from social alienation to social acceptance, make it the perfect piece of escapism for the X-Factor generation. Anyone looking for complexity of character or a meditation on the enduring damage caused by childhood trauma, however, is destined to be disappointed.