We had a great turn out for our discussion of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. This 2017 first novel by Gail Honeyman has received over 47,000 reviews on Amazon, averaging 4.5 out of five stars, as well as generally outstanding critical reviews. Not that this should deter us from disagreeing! But we didn’t really. A story about a lonely, eccentric, traumatized woman stepping outside of her box obviously resonated with many of us.
Our first responder liked the book and felt that it was timely, given how mental health has been in the news with Naomi Osaka pulling out of the French Open and Simone Biles withdrawing from events in the Olympics. The discussion was energetic, with members piping up simultaneously in agreement and mentioning the mental strain and loneliness of lost jobs and isolation because of the continuing COVID pandemic. At one point, a member said “be careful what you wish for” in reference to her own recent retirement.
Another member had trouble with the negativity in the book, the horrible things the mother would say and the way Eleanor’s co-workers seemed to treat her. A member with a background in social work and the courts felt the book was so real and she loved seeing Eleanor triumph. As the discussion jumped around the table, one member’s main response was that he does not like to be blindsided and that Eleanor was a “nut case” and he wanted to tell Raymond to watch out. About this time someone else remembered that just today in Las Vegas someone had been shot nine times and survived.[i] This book is apparently a triggering book and the connections we make through reading and as we discuss was clearly evident.
We mentioned Eleanor’s scar and how it was both physical and emotional. Eleanor is an unreliable narrator who doesn’t acknowledge that it is not normal to drink two bottles of vodka every weekend. We discussed plot points and actions and brought it back to our own experiences. One possible criticism of the book is that the author is making humor by allowing us to laugh at a dysfunctional person; but one member thought, no, we weren’t laughing at Eleanor, we are enjoying her unusual viewpoints and vocabulary.
A new member started the book just on Saturday and kept reading to see the high points, the little kindnesses. This reminded me of an article in The Guardian in which the author is quoted: “It is a story of the transformational power of small acts of kindness, often involving food: complimentary truffles with a cup of coffee, a plate of biscuits to accompany a mug of tea.”[ii]
Someone mentioned that they were glad the author didn’t make Raymond and Eleanor a romantic couple. One of us called it Pollyannish! Did we need the mystery of Eleanor’s trauma to stay engaged? Don’t we all know people who are lonely and different and stuck in ruts. Someone reminded us that since Eleanor is an unreliable narrator, maybe people weren’t laughing at her—perhaps that is only a perception—just like the haunting voice of Eleanor’s mother is only imagined.
We ended the meeting by mentioning small things: Eleanor’s name for high heels—death sticks[iii]; Eleanor’s mother’s “oozingly oleaginous” voice; Eleanor’s apology to Raymond’s mother[iv]; the image of Eleanor running out of a concert because of how unexpectedly horrible the music is[v]. We watched a short video[vi]of the author answering questions because her thick Scottish accent amazes me. When I read her words, they sound just like American English! One member listened to the book and the audio performer was perfect.
We didn’t discuss everything I had expected and more than I am remembering here. I still wonder how it could have been different if Raymond were a woman and NOT a potential love interest? How would this story play out in Las Vegas? One of us mentioned travelling in Scotland and trying haggis and Irn Bru. If I forgot anything or you have a response to share, please join the discussion!
- OTHER WORKS DISCUSSED:
- The Rosie Project (2013) Graeme Simsion
- Sugar Baby (1985) German film directed by Percy Adlon and starring Marianne Sagebrecht
- “Wild Nights Wild Nights” — a poem by Emily Dickinson
[i] “LAS VEGAS (AP) — A shooting apparently involving a landlord-tenant dispute left two renters dead, one critically wounded with nine gunshot wounds and their landlord in custody as the suspect, Las Vegas police said Tuesday.”
[ii] Guardian News and Media. (2018, January 12). Gail Honeyman: ‘I didn’t want Eleanor Oliphant to be portrayed as a victim’. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jan/12/gail-honeyman-didnt-want-eleanor-oliphant-portrayed-as-victim.
[iii] I couldn’t find a reference for death sticks as a name for high heels, but it sounds like something Eleanor would say and one of our group remembered it that way!
[iv] “Your question was both reasonable and appropriate. My response, however, was not. I’m at a loss to explain it. Please accept my apologies if I’ve made you feel uncomfortable.” Eleanor, page 96.
[v] “Without exaggeration, it could only be described as the cacophonous din of hell. What on earth was wrong with these people?” Eleanor, page 212.