Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

About Gail Honeyman

Gail Honeyman is a Scottish bestselling author whose debut novel, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, won the 2017 Costa First Novel Award. Gail was born and raised in Stirling, Scotland. Her mother was as a civil servant and her father a scientist. Gail was an avid reader in her childhood, visiting the library “a ridiculous number of times a week” due to her passion for books. When asked how much of Eleanor Oliphant was based on her own life, Gail has said “Eleanor Oliphant isn’t me, or anyone I know – but of course I’ve felt loneliness – everybody does”. (Source: https://gailhoneyman.com/)

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine: A Summary

With that title, Honeyman raises a silent question in the mind of the reader: Is Eleanor fine?

As the book unfolds, we look at the world through Eleanor’s eyes. At 29, she has a carefully constructed solitary life that involves a Monday-Friday work week from 8:30am to 5:30pm. Nobody has asked her what she does in 9 years – that she “works in an office” suffices as a response. Her weekends are propelled by pizza, a bottle of chianti and two bottles of vodka. She meets no-one till Monday rolls around again. Her social awkwardness is the butt of many jokes amongst her office colleagues but she seems unperturbed by it.

Indicative of her deep isolation is a matter-of-fact reflection early on in the book where she says: “I do exist, don’t I? It often feels as if I’m not here, that I’m a figment of my own imagination. There are days when I feel so lightly connected to the earth that the threads that tether me to the planet are gossamer thin, spun sugar. A strong gust of wind could dislodge me completely, and I’d lift off and blow away, like one of those seeds in a dandelion clock.”

Loneliness is one of the key themes of the book and the raw, aching honesty with which Eleanor describes it is strikes a powerful chord with anyone who has ever experienced it: “There have been times when I felt that I might die of loneliness. People sometimes say they might die of boredom, that they’re dying for a cup of tea, but for me, dying of loneliness is not a hyperbole. When I feel like that, my head drops and my shoulders slump and I ache, I physically ache, for human contact – I truly feel that I might tumble to the ground and pass away if someone doesn’t hold me, touch me. I don’t mean a lover – this recent madness aside, I had long since given up on any notion that another person might love me that way – but simply a human being. The scalp massage at the hairdresser, the flu jab I had last winter – the only time I experience touch is from people whom I am paying, and they are almost wearing disposable gloves at the time. I’m merely stating the facts.”

It’s unclear why Eleanor lives this life of isolation. Social workers visit her biannually in the apartment she has lived in since she was 17 which has furniture that “was provided by a charity that helps vulnerable young people and ex-offenders when they move into a new home.”Something happened to Eleanor. Something that left a scar covering half her face. That might explain why she lives a reclusive life and which is only revealed at the end.

As you journey with Eleanor, the reader is also privy to her thoughts and delightful sense of humour: “There was nothing to tempt me from the choice of desserts, so I opted instead for a coffee, which was bitter and lukewarm. Naturally, I had been about to pour it all over myself but, just in time, had read the warning printed on the paper cup, alerting me to the fact that hot liquids can cause injury. A lucky escape, Eleanor! I said to myself, laughing quietly. I began to suspect that Mr. McDonald was a very foolish man indeed, although, judging from the undiminished queue, a wealthy one.”

Looking at the world through Eleanor’s eyes is to find amusement in what might otherwise be mundane. The world is a place of funhouse mirrors and the reader is drawn to laugh along with her.

Things take a turn from her decade-long schedule when Eleanor develops a middle-schooler crush on a terrible pop star which prompts a physical makeover. A relationship with Raymond, an IT person in her office, meanwhile, prompts an inner transformation. Raymond doesn’t partake of the nasty office jokes or views her as a freak of nature. Instead, taking her as a potential friend, he gradually draws her out of her carefully constructed cocoon. She is persuaded to help an old man who falls over and in the process is gradually drawn into the lives of others around her.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is a must-read heartwarming book which speaks deeply to the need for and the power of kindness and meaningful connections in our daily lives.

Further Reading and Listening:

Interview with Gail Honeyman: Listen to this interview with the author by the Reading Women blog where she shares about the origin of the memorable title character and what it’s been like publishing her debut novel.

Discussion Themes and Questions:

  • What were your overall thoughts about the book?
  • What did you think about the writing style of the book? What kept you engaged?
  • Which themes caught your attention? What did you connect with from your life story?
  • Kindness and little gestures to indicate it mean a lot for Eleanor. How do you practice kindness in your life and what role doe sit play in it?
  • What changes to make Eleanor hopeful about life? How is this reflected in her day-to-day routine?