Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine has sat on my shelf for some months, and in that time I think I’ve seen between 40 and 50 different people reading it on the tube. Every time I saw a copy of the book, I was reminded that it lay – spine uncracked – on my shelf. So, eventually, I pulled it off the shelf and sat down to read.
I had heard mentions on social media that Eleanor Oliphant, our titular main character, could very well be on the autistic spectrum as well as experiencing mental health conditions. At first, I didn’t think much of that, just because on social media, there can be a tendency to claim fictional characters as autistic based on very little over than a couple of stereotypical behaviours. Having finished the book, I can see where the people making those claims came from.
‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ is not a book with dramatic grand events falling over each other every chapter and it is all the better for it. Pinnacle moments in the book include Eleanor helping an old man who falls over, attending a party and going to a gig. They are day-to-day events for many people, and yet, in the world of Eleanor, they have the potential to be life-changing. This works so well, I think, because the biggest event in Eleanor’s life has already happened and had such an enormous impact on her that she is still struggling to deal with it decades on.
Eleanor’s life, dictated by routine and structure, was oddly familiar and so too was the way she experienced the world around her. It was both at time entertaining and cringe-worthy to see some of my own behaviour reflected off the page by Eleanor, particularly when her thought processes meandered along wondering why so many people around her lacked necessary social graces when it was, in fact, her that was clattering into social situations and causing chaos.
The character of Eleanor is naive and abrupt, flawed and traumatised by the life that she has had so far, but at the same time, it’s almost as if she doesn’t quite process just how deep play her life’s events have affected her. Yet at the same time, Eleanor is absolutely not a pitiful character; she remains firmly in the role of hero of her own story. Even when she asks for and needs helps when her world begins to overwhelm her, she is never positioned as a damsel in distressed – maybe in part because she is far too spiky and straightforward to ever sit in that role.
As Eleanor’s life takes a sharp turn into unknown experiences and she finds herself ready and wanting to relate to other people, such as her work colleague Raymond and his elderly mother, there isn’t a grand change of character that is too often seen in these sorts of books. Eleanor grows and begins to understand herself better as the book progresses through events that bring forth joy, embarrassment, grief and confusion, but she never changes to become who other people want her to be. She very firmly stays Eleanor Oliphant.
A considerable part of the book revolves around Eleanor’s relationship with her abusive mother, who she speaks to – on schedule – every week. As the story progresses and we read more about Eleanor’s interactions with her mother and then how these influence her interactions with everyone around her – from Raymond through to the musician she is obsessing over and even to her therapist – coils of realisation about what happened to Eleanor as a child begin to untangle. Everything only completely unravels when you get to the very last few pages and I enjoyed the book so much that I was genuinely disappointed when I got to the end.