What we are reading: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Me

It started in the first six months of dating. If my memory is correct, during the cold, dark evenings of winter after “falling back” for our ridiculous daylight savings ritual, I started talking about how much I loved this book that my sister gave me. He asked to see it; and somehow one of us floated the idea “Why don’t we read it together?” And then we did–out loud, back-and-forth, chapter-by-chapter. It became “our” book and a pretty delightful part of those dark and cold evenings in my one bedroom apartment with two cats and a scratchy carpet. I remember thinking, “I can’t believe we’re doing this. It’s like a scene in a sappy Hallmark movie…and despite that association, I just love it.” Now we live together, and in that process had careful and cautious conversations about condensing boxes upon boxes of books into just TWO bookshelves. So continuing our tradition of reading a book out loud together does seem, well, perfect.

Him

That first book we read was The Course of Love by Alain de Botton, in case anyone is curious.  I can’t recommend it enough for anyone who thinks long-term relationships, let alone marriage, have a place in their lives.

When we moved in together, it wasn’t long before the practice of reading aloud to each other came up again, and we set out to find another book.  We tried a nonfiction book that was interesting but a little too dry for bedtime reading and it was clear we needed some fiction, but we weren’t sure what.  Then one day we were at Giant grocery store and came upon the book section, and out of several options, this is what we chose.  Yes, we, being noted book lovers, bought a book at a grocery store. It happens. Brianna had heard of this book and was drawn to it, and it seemed intriguing enough.  I was in.

Me

Yes. Let me just pause for a moment to paint you a picture of how our joint reading with nonfiction worked. We would climb into bed and one of us would be interested in an Atlantic or New Yorker article and ask the other, “Do you want me to read this out loud? I’ve been wanting to read it.” Inevitably, the interesting title would lure the other in, but as soon as someone started reading, the one not reading would fall asleep. Trying to engage with solving climate change or influencing patterns of human behavior after a 16 hour day of doing critical thinking, making food, and talking to so many humans is…just a bit much. Our bodies were telling us to make better choices.

I suggested that we needed stories–narratives and characters and laughter. He agreed, and for some reason, the next time we went food shopping we felt a sense of urgency to find a new book before we left the grocery store. 

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman was one of those books that kept popping up in my social feeds and in conversations and observations of people reading in public places. I felt like it was EvErYwHeRe. When we saw it in the grocery store among scant other appealing options, I was ready to go for it. I was nearly certain to like it based on recommendations. He trusted me. It has Reese Witherspoon’s book club seal. Sold. 

Immediately, it was both laugh-out-loud funny and disturbingly weird. A tantalizing combination for sleepy eyes and world-weary brains. 

Him

I’m going to spoil the review’s ending and say now we loved it.  The prose is fun, the characters absurdly funny and funny because of their absurdity.  The protagonist, Eleanor, is a piece of work indeed, and second-most-central character, Raymond, may just be one of the most heartwarming characters recently put to page.  In fact, I think Raymond steals the show in the book by virtue of not having his inner workings dissected and coming up clutch time after time.

So where do we start with this?  The story arc? The exploration of Eleanor’s trauma, or her response to it?  Do we nitpick the things we thought could be better?

Me

I’m going to skip the structural or thematic analysis in favor of just talking about what made me laugh out loud. (I need to take a moment here for a nearly David-Foster-Wallacian length aside. When I say “laugh out loud” I mean, like, literally. Not the fake tears emoji laughing, not the ubiquitously texted “lol” when really the most that was happening was a smirk. No. When I type “laugh out loud”, I am describing laughing so hard I sometimes cried. Ok, we can carry on.)

Eleanor Oliphant is a socially inept protagonist which is inherently funny. She’s brilliant with a vocabulary that sometimes caught me tongue-tied and leaning over to ask him if he had ever heard (or pronounced) that word. But her brilliance is an odd one–built from Encyclopedic knowledge in absence of interactions with real people and actual social settings. She seems to carry a nearly absolute inability to understand human behavior driven by pleasing other people or meeting social standards. She says things that are far too blunt, and thinks things that if uttered would require an audible gasp of horror at their lack of consideration for anyone’s feelings. She interprets actions of others through this lens, her lens, which often results in the most ridiculous juxtaposition of her iron-clad logic and her absurd ability to understand that humans are social creatures with social needs that exceed base logical equations. 

Eleanor Oliphant is also an obviously deeply troubled protagonist. One could argue that she seems to fit the anti-hero category in that you like her enough to root for her, but she is terrible enough that you also want someone or something to hold her accountable or cause growth. Since the narration is so deeply embedded in Elanor’s internal dialogue and account, the reader has the fun of hearing her side of the story and also recognizing her unreliable quality as a narrator. She cannot interpret what happens to her appropriately, so the reader is left with the often hilarious task of trying to imagine the full picture from limited descriptions. She obviously has a problem with alcohol but doesn’t see it. She obviously has no friends because of how she speaks or avoids people, but she doesn’t seem to understand that she needs any friends. She obviously is deeply lonely and possibly depressed, but she describes her routines with a clinical detachment that doesn’t see the sadness so apparent to anyone who hears them.

Him

I can’t ever skip the structural or thematic analyses, and let’s not go claiming David Foster Wallace-level sidebars unless you’re ready to bury an entire novel in footnotes.

I know people who remind me in no small part of Eleanor, right down to being late adopters of smartphones and scant users of social media.  I loved that these social dark horses were given a limelight.

I also loved the humor throughout, and Eleanor’s strained descriptions of the lives of people around her.  The relentless judgment in at least the first two thirds of the book is worth the price of admission alone.  It’s brutal and it’s brilliant. I did struggle with her social density, though. She had a job where she went to work with other humans each weekday and she consumed a solid amount of television.  It’s difficult to wrap my mind around her not getting some aspects of basic human interaction when some of them are unavoidable. I bumped on these a few times on what were otherwise smooth deliveries of snark and social foibles.  I nearly cried when she brought already-opened food and drink as a gift to a social gathering, for example. Oh, spoilers.

So those little niggles aside, my main complaints were the ways the book telegraphed its main twists with too much clarity.  I don’t think the book trusts the reader enough, and the tidbits that are doled out are done so with leaden thuds for everyone’s perusal rather than the sprinkled morsels one might find in, say, a mystery tale.  I wonder if the way the twist is presaged was changed after feedback, because they don’t match up to the otherwise spectacular prose, form, and flow. They seemed like concessions.

This time I’m ahead of it:  SPOILER AHEAD.

We strongly suspected early on that a set of Eleanor’s key experiences throughout were entirely in her own mind.  Honestly, I can’t decide if the way the other characters didn’t acknowledge this strained credulity or perfectly matched their big hearts.

Me

You spelled out more of what makes Eleanor unreliable–the reader strongly understands that something is dramatically wrong with her entire approach to living in the world and yet she clings to it with the indifference of a queen and the stubbornness of a mule. She’s delusional about quite a few things, but proceeds to make choices as if they are rational. But this also highlights the generosity and big heartedness of every other character who bumps into her along the way. I found myself at times holding my breath to see how Raymond or her office colleagues would react. Sometimes, they were predictably cruel, but most of the time, and nearly always with Raymond, they were surprisingly gracious. My faith in humanity was restored by the way others extended the best of humanity toward Eleanor while she was only capable of extending her own warped sense of fairness or connection. 

I thought the book’s description completely oversold this book as a “love story.” And, to be frank, the way Eleanor’s relationship with Raymond develops is one of my favorite parts. I’m glad it took nothing of the traditional path toward love and friendship. Instead, its pacing, highlights, and progression felt brightly authentic. The ending attempts to tie nothing in a bow or sweep anything under the rug. It’s heartwarming in the best of ways, avoiding all of the eye-rolling tropes of the aforementioned Hallmark genre. 

Another aspect of this book that kept me on my toes and also laughing was the infusion of UK words, phrases, lifestyle, and humor. For me as an American reader, the UK wasn’t just the setting of the book, it was an additional layer of mystery and delight. 

Him

I completely agree about the way the book chooses not to wrap up predictably in terms of Eleanor and Raymond, but at the same time leaving strong hints that this might continue on in that direction.  Leaving it untied is a great touch. Not every story about a man and a woman needs to end in a tidy love story, especially when it would come across as some savior tale. Eleanor’s jealousy, Raymond’s deflection and insinuations about what kind of woman he’s into and isn’t into, etc. are enough hints for me about where their relationship could go after the book’s conclusion.

The Scottish phrasings were a lot of fun, but it’s also Eleanor’s clear francophile nature and use of non-English.  There’s plenty to learn in here but in a good way.

Anything else?

Me

This story was very different from our first one. How has it shaped the way we chose future read-alouds for us?

Him

Well, we decided to stick to fiction.  Ask me again after the third one.

Me

Ok, I agree with that–fiction was definitely the right genre. I think this one also taught me that we appreciate quirky and character-focused. Maybe we should look for a fast-paced plot-driven something in the future and see how we feel about it in comparison. Should we ask anyone who might read this what they recommend? 

Him

Of course!  I’m always open to recommendations.  Requirements: fiction, good pacing, not too, eh, floofy.  I don’t have the time for the interior lives of a group of middle-aged suburbanites dissecting each other’s feelings, or something.

Me

Ok, so no David Foster Wallace read-alouds. Got it. 

Him

Seriously, I think we need to discuss who David Foster Wallace was and what he wrote.  There’s a disconnect here. We’re not reading Infinite Jest, don’t worry.  We 100% should read Consider the Lobster out loud, however.  It isn’t fiction but it is worth it.

Me

Please, let’s not. I’d rather read the next book than have that discussion. Let’s pull this back on track. Additional Requirements: interesting setting, plot twists, and interesting characters. Bonus: beautiful language–we both appreciate that. 

Him

Before we go, I feel the need to clarify that I do understand the broader context around David Foster Wallace and the white men who love David Foster Wallace.  I get it. I do!

Me

No one reading this is that invested in white men who love David Foster Wallace. You’ve cemented your true Wallace fandom and deep involvement in feminist twitter in this disclaimer. AnYwAy–our next book is Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Maybe we’ll start Consider the Lobster after that (unless any of YOUR recommendations sound more appealing–a second plea for recommendations). Please. Give us recommendations!

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