In my mind, it’s not often that the back-cover description of a book matches to a T what the book is about or conveys without hyperbole what makes it unique and special. The back-cover of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine has one of those few en-pointe descriptions. “[It’s] the story of a…heroine whose deadpan weirdness and wit make for an irresistible journey as she realizes the only way to survive is to open your [her] heart.” That “deadpan weirdness” and the wit that is derived from it is a major part of the charm of this book, as is Eleanor’s journey to open-heartedness.
But First, What’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine About?
Wikipedia has a great, full plot summary. The short version is that Eleanor Oliphant is a 29-year-old woman working in Glasgow, Scotland. She is socially awkward, has no friends, lives alone, and drinks two bottles of vodka every weekend to deal with the pressure she feels from an overbearing mom. Oh, and she has a major crush on a local celebrity. This, she thinks, makes her “completely fine.”
On her way home from work one day, she and a random coworker–Raymond–help save an older man’s life and, over the course of his recovery, get to know him and each other. Raymond is curious as to why she has such a badly scarred faced but has no memory of how it became scarred, but more than that, he’s intrigued by her ability to remain stoic in the face of ridicule from their coworkers.
As their friendship develops, Eleanor’s attempts to actually meet her celebrity crush escalate while her attempts to remain stoic against both her coworkers’ and mother’s ridicule start to fail. And the question becomes: will she hold tighter to her worldview in order to survive or learn a new way of thinking in order to thrive?
What’s So Great About “Deadpan Weirdness?”
This snippet of a conversation between her and Raymond perfectly captures her outlook on the world and other people while also showing her unwitting wit:
Some might argue that it is this wit that drives the book, as without it, we would have a main character who lives almost entirely in her own head, interacting with a bare minimum of people, and who doesn’t tolerate any aberrational behavior from them or, indeed, from her own routine. This would not make for an enjoyable read. As it is, though, through her eyes, we see, little by little, her desire to understand other people grow, in part as a way to get out of her own tortured and lonely head.
Therein lies the other charm of this book: we see how people–good, kind, imperfect people–can make a difference in others’ lives, just by doing little things, just by not taking them for granted. Those things, embodied mostly in the character of Raymond, start with just paying attention to someone, being open to the possibility that they’re not who we think they are because of the way they act, dress, or talk. Indeed, it is a compilation of those little things that end up contributing to the very change Eleanor needs to surmount what she eventually realizes is her tragic past.
I also love the way Eleanor’s difficult, redemptive journey takes her into a therapist’s office. Her interactions with Maria, her counselor, cast a wider light on her character and represent an element I’d like to see in more books: that the struggle to good mental health–something with which we all grapple at times–sometimes requires the guiding hand of a mental health professional.
The only thing that diminished the experience of reading “Eleanor Oliphant” for me was that the ending felt a tiny bit contrived, given how long it took for the main character to get there. It felt a little she-fought-her-devil-and-won-the-end. It was, however, an appropriate end to the story.
For those of you who are interested, there is some swearing, but no sex or violence.
So, do I recommend this book to others? Wholeheartedly.
What’s the (Book) Deal?
Four dollars through Alibris.com. It starts at $9 on Amazon.