Eleanor Oliphant Is What We Need

In 2017, 40-year-old author Gail Honeyman entered a story about a lonely and damaged young girl into a writing competition. Now winner of the Costa First Novel Award and scheduled to become Reese Witherspoon’s next film project, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine has become a triumph for modern literature.

Our heroine, Eleanor, is evidently not at all fine. She often goes home from work on Friday and doesn’t speak to another person until she arrives at work on Monday morning. She is a source of amusement amongst her colleagues, and many modern advances are completely lost on her. “D’you like a smoky eye?” The makeup assistant at Bobbi Brown asks, to which Eleanor replies, “I don’t like anything to do with smoking.”

At the background of it all, her manipulative mother is an ominous presence looming at the end of the phone, hinting at a darkness in Eleanor’s past that may be the explanation for her isolation and uniqueness.

When Eleanor and Raymond, an IT consultant in her office, witness an elderly man falling unconscious in the street, an unlikely friendship begins to form between them. Somewhat hesitantly, Eleanor opens up to the possibility that people genuinely want to spend time with her, and with Raymond’s friendship comes a growing sense of self-assurance.

As we are introduced to Eleanor’s quirky persona, she initially appears very hostile to strangers and speaks her mind with seemingly no understanding of the consequences: “You’ll die years earlier than you would have otherwise, probably from cancer…you’ve already got the smoker’s characteristically dull, prematurely lined skin.” However, as we spend more time with Eleanor it becomes very clear that she has had nobody to help her align with societal norms – she was a confused child passed from carer to carer until university at seventeen. How can anybody blame her for reacting how many of us would were it not for our awareness of social politeness? Not only that, but being surrounded by unkindness and ridicule, it must be a natural reaction to close up and use that barrier of separation as a form of protection.

While Eleanor’s confidently naïve observations of the world can be enormously funny, the humour is threaded with heartbreak. At seeing her reflection after a new haircut she thanks the stylist for “making her shiny”. Having been surrounded by damaging and neglectful people all her life, becoming introduced to kind individuals is a foreign but welcomed concept for her.

Honeyman has created a character that is somehow completely fresh and new among literary heroines, and yet can be related to in countless ways. It has been commented that chronic loneliness is a very real problem for elderly people, but it never seems to be addressed among younger generations. Why must age be a contributing factor to a feeling of isolation? Eleanor has had a very troubled childhood and adolescence, but even those of us with caring families are capable of feeling lonely. In fact, according to a 2018 report by the Office for National Statistics, almost 10% of people aged 16-24 said they “always or often” felt lonely. This statistic was over three times higher than for those aged 65 or more.

This novel undoubtedly speaks to many young people, including myself. I have struggled with loneliness in the past – a desire for new friends coupled with fierce insecurity in social situations has made meeting new people a real challenge, and it is something I continue to struggle with. Loneliness can be incredibly upsetting, and is often hard to recognise in someone experiencing it. Honeyman has succeeded in raising awareness of the issue with her original and deeply moving novel, outlining the importance of kindness and compassion.

Is Giving Up On A Book Ever OK?

Here’s a question. When is it acceptable to give up on a book? Some may say it never is, but surely there are times when we are allowed to ditch a book halfway through.

I’ve been struggling with this for some time now. I’ve meandered through the last four or five books with mild interest without ever having that undeniable connection. I see people with their heads in books on trains and in cafes and I’m filled with jealousy at how much fun they’re having. I can’t help but feel that I’m becoming fussy, because I never struggled with book boredom as a child.

I tried researching how to resolve this. I typed “can’t find your book” and Google regurgitated a whole range of possible solutions: Wikihow’s “3 ways to find lost objects”, how to find a book on a library system, and “7 steps to find lost objects after panic sets in” (that was just as patronising as it sounds).

None of this was what I meant. I wanted to know how to find MY book, the book that would keep me up all night and have me clinging to every page. It’s a cliché but, annoyingly, clichés are often true. I wanted that experience of falling in love with a book, feeling like you knew the protagonist intimately and was a part of their story as it unfolded. I’ve only felt like this a select number of times, two occasions being Harry Potter and Game of Thrones. Both series are seven books strong and although the latter took me a while, I was just as engaged during the last book as I was at the beginning (good job George).

My latest attempt – and I predict soon-to-be failure – is The Lion’s Eye by Joanna Greenfield. The story is one student’s account of her time studying chimpanzees in East Africa on a once-in-a-lifetime research opportunity. When I found this book in the library I was intrigued. I always love a female protagonist with gumption and I thought I would empathise, seeing as the author was only just in her twenties when offered the research assignment.

I’m now eighty pages in, which is shamefully only a quarter of the book. She’s in the Impenetrable Forest and struggling to adapt to the unforgiving environment, but I find myself still very disconnected. I don’t feel any anticipation or excitement – to care one jot about a real-life story I need to know the author’s history, understand their passions and what drives them. Aside from a genetic condition in one of her eyes, I barely know anything about this woman. As I write about it now I’m not surprised I don’t care what happens to her.

This has turned into a rant, and I didn’t really want to start slating books, but I’ve convinced myself that I shouldn’t need to hang on to an underwhelming book just because it seemed like I would enjoy it or because other people have. While I would advise against giving up most things, there really are too many fish in the sea and too many books in the library. Although there are millions to try, one day I will find MY book.