I received my copy of Eleanor Oliphant at the Big Book Bonanza event held by HarperCollins in London (thank you very much!). It was the first big publishing event I’d attended and it was something of a revelation to walk around tables piled high with all kinds of brand new hardbacks and paperbacks and proofs and just… take what you wanted. I was literally like a kid in a sweet shop. I may or may not have staggered back to the tube with a tote bag stuffed full of 10 books.
So, away I went on holiday with my copy of Eleanor Oliphant tucked into my case as a sort of “in-case-I-finish-everything-else” read (not entirely unlikely), not really knowing what to expect from it. While I really like the cover and (especially) the title, which I think convey some of novel’s quirky charm as well as hinting at its darker undertones, I felt that the summary on the back cover perhaps didn’t do justice to just how wonderful, funny and emotionally hard-hitting this book is! If I hadn’t had it recommended to me at the HarperCollins event, would I have picked it up? I’m not sure. Right, nitpick out the way (and let’s be fair, it was a nitpick, sorry!), this novel has got to be one of my favourite books of the year so far and I absolutely ADORED it. It packs a hell of an emotional punch; it made me laugh and it broke my heart and it took me through the whole spectrum of human emotions in between.
Eleanor Oliphant lives her life by a strict routine. She wears the same clothes to work and eats the same M&S meal deal every day for lunch while doing the same newspaper crossword. She spends the weekends with just a couple of bottles of vodka for company and wills Monday to come. She gets by on her own. In fact, she’s completely fine. But events beyond Eleanor’s tight control conspire to jolt her out of her carefully planned routine, she is forced to venture out and confront the world (and the baffling minefield of social etiquette!) for the first time in a very long time, with often hilarious results. But as she begins to connect with people and even to make friends, she starts to understand the true extent of her loneliness, has to finally face the traumatic past that has haunted her for as long as she can remember and comes to realise that, just maybe, she is not completely fine after all…*
First off, can we take a moment to appreciate that this stunningly written, assured and perfectly pitched novel is a debut? I feel like congratulations are definitely in order. The unique voice of our main character Eleanor is what makes this novel such a triumph. Reminiscent of the unique first-person perspectives to be found in other acclaimed debuts such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and The Rosie Project, Eleanor’s frank and often hilarious observations and her struggles with the intricate and seemingly unfathomable rules of social interaction are coupled with often heart-breaking insights into the depth of her loneliness and a past that no human being should have had to suffer. Yet, Gail Honeyman strikes the perfect balance between desperately sad and delightfully uplifting, emotionally challenging and uproariously funny. All of it combines to make an absolute delight of a book that I think anybody and everybody would do themselves a favour by reading.
The best part of this book, and the part that really drew me in, was hands down the characters, how they interacted with each other and how they developed through the course of the book. They were written with a realism and a delicacy that is only achieved by the truly talented. The growing relationship between Eleanor and her colleague Raymond was a particularly beautiful exploration of the meaning of true friendship, with Eleanor’s initial judgements about Raymond’s appearance and mannerisms diminishing before his gentle and accepting nature, his tolerance and his kindness. Despite Eleanor’s initial judgements of his questionable table manners and distinct lack of fashion sense, Raymond is there for Eleanor at the most difficult time in her life; it was a friendship that gave me hope, made me feel uplifted by the basic decency and generosity of the human spirit. I also very much enjoyed Eleanor and Raymond’s growing closeness to Sammy, an old man whose life they save after he collapses in the street. It was just a book that restored my faith in humanity.
Obviously, the darker and more serious element of the book was Eleanor’s childhood, and a terrible and traumatic event that is revealed bit by bit as the novel progresses through hints and oblique comments that make reference to the event without mentioning it explicitly. I loved the fact that the novel combined elements of both the contemporary and thriller genres; this central mystery made for an incredibly compelling reading experience as well as providing the reader with an understanding of why Eleanor has become so lonely and isolated. It really made me consider how quick society can be to judge those that it considers unusual or eccentric, without stopping to think why that might be. My favourite part of Gail Honeyman’s exploration of Eleanor’s mental health was that the reader is not encouraged to feel pity for her. Instead, a portrait is painted of a funny, thoughtful and, OK, rather eccentric individual, who has displayed incredible strength by continuing to live her life as best she knows how after suffering a highly traumatic childhood. The acceptance shown by Raymond, her new acquaintances and, eventually, her colleagues, sends a strong message of warmth, hope and compassion.
Overall, despite tackling some really difficult and weighty topics, I felt that this novel was predominantly funny, charming and uplifting. Every time I picked it up it felt like sinking into a warm bath after a long day. I am so excited to see more of Gail Honeyman in the future – I will be dropping everything to read whatever she writes next.
Star Rating 5/5
*actually, to be fair, I spent absolutely ages trying to write that summary and it’s definitely harder than it seems!