Books

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine: A Beautiful, Honest, and Hilarious Story That Argues That Human Connection Is An Antidote to Loneliness

Trigger Warning: this book discusses self-harm, suicide, depression, and alcoholism.

Pros

  • Features a hilarious and intriguing main character
  • Eleanor keeps her individuality while learning to love others and care for their needs and her own
  • Keeps the reader hooked, even in slower plotlines
  • Lovable side characters
  • Good message of love and human connectivity
  • Well written take on introverts, trauma, mental health (depression, alcoholism), and the effects of self-isolation

CONS

  • I didn’t see many cons
  • Makeover scene: the message seemed to promote spending money for looks
  • Overemphasis on social rituals

Over the summer, I read Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. I was looking at the book as an Easter gift my mom bought for me to read at the beach. I actually started reading before I went to the beach, which is surprising. I’m an English major, so usually after finals, the last thing I want to do is stare at paper for hours and absorb words. I usually feel hesitant to read again after finals, but the cover drew me in.

My copy of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine has an eye-catching bright blue and orange design, and it features our heroine with her arms crossed over her. She’s almost insisting to us that she is completely fine after all. I read the back and was intrigued too. What sort of character is this? Then I read that Reese Witherspoon recommended this book, so I was encouraged. I have never read a Reese Witherspoon-approved novel before, but I trust her taste. I was right to do so. 

Eleanor Oliphant is a nearly thirty-year-old woman who has never been particularly social. She works in an office, she does crossword puzzles, and she lives a rather boring life. But when I read her perspective, I found that I was not, for even a second, bored.

Getting inside Eleanor’s head was going through a funhouse, you never know what you will see next and everything you see comes out of nowhere and is intensely amusing. I hardly put the book down. Eleanor’s wit is often unintentional but fantastic.

She has no idea how funny and unusual she is because she grew up isolated from most people. After her mother went away, Eleanor was shuffled between foster homes. She never had stability or comfort and her abusive mother regularly calls her every single Wednesday to insult her. This mother is terrifying. Every phone call is emotionally abusive. I never met a woman like this and I never hope to. Eleanor did not have friends growing up either, so she is very unskilled regarding understanding and following social norms. For example, in one scene she goes to a dance. Eleanor is trying to learn how to dance and interact with people at a party, but she has never danced before.

“Free-form jigging, communal shapes in the air; Dancing was easy!…YMCA! YMCA! Arms in the air, mimicking the letters – what a marvelous idea! Who knew that dancing could be so logical? …From my limited exposure to popular music, people did seem to sing about umbrellas and firstarting and Emily Bronte novels, so, I supposed, why not a gender-and faith-based youth organization?”

Eleanor on dancing

She describes the world the way someone unfamiliar with it would. Rather than being cast off as an odd recluse or weirdo, her differences make her unique and lovable. Her perspective is honest and looks at human life in ways I haven’t considered before. The social rituals that we go through make little sense on the outside, and she can see the beauty and humor in them.

Eleanor’s keen sense of humor keeps the book interesting, even though there are often scenes where not much happens. The simple experience of shopping at a grocery store is wonderful and hilarious to witness. There was also very little filler. All the scenes, big and small, impact the plot. Part of Eleanor’s journey is her goal to meet a man she has seen once in person. To Eleanor, he is intellectually fascinating, extremely handsome, and a genuine person. He is also a semi-famous musician. She is ambitious, so I will give her that.

If we look at side characters, almost everyone is equally lovely. Eleanor runs into particular trouble when she and the IT guy, Raymond, end up saving a stranger’s life together. The unexpected event leads them on an adventure that neither expected.

Raymond is such a delightful character. He is not someone Eleanor would ever choose to associate with, his wardrobe consists of graphic tees and jogging shoes, which Eleanor remarks are primarily worn by people who never set foot in a gym. He spends most weekends playing video games until dawn, and he lacks table manners. Eleanor grew up learning to imitate high society and about the importance of putting a fork in the right place at all times. They make quite the pair.

The man that they save, Sammy, is also delightful. He is a kind man who introduces them to his family. The story is one of found families. Family is foraged from love, rather than blood. Though blood and love often coexist. Raymond’s mother also makes an appearance, and she is lovely.

The novel tells us that the meaning of life and reason to live is human connection. The relationships that Eleanor develops encourage and help her when she is miserable. I found this message to be both uplifting and a little lacking.

The show also mentions human rituals as a meaningful aspect of life, and Eleanor gushes over her makeover and gets her nails done. These rituals require a deal of wealth and material success; Eleanor can easily afford to get her hair, nails, and toes done because she can afford to drop over a hundred dollars. Her experiences at the hair and nail salons felt a little romanticized. I enjoy getting my nails done and my hair cut as much as the next person, but they do not feel like the meaningful rituals that connect me and create an intimacy between myself and the people who perform them for me. If these are are a primary way to happiness, only those with the money can afford these luxuries. The novel also ignores that the people who do her hairdo work to eat and provide for themselves. They may be tired after a long day and just want to go home. It is an act of service, I suppose, but it feels a little shallow. The nail stylist does not necessarily want to interact with Eleanor or help her look good or whatever. The novel shows that the people don’t always care, but Eleanor’s romanticization makes it feel like we should agree with her.

Outside of material good, the novel does mention the beauty of nature a little. There is one particular scene where Eleanor and Raymond are walking outdoors, and they look at the beauty of the sunset. That moment is fleeting but beautiful. A case for the good in nature rather than hair products is probably preferable if we seek a moral center.

The message seems to be a humanist one. Humanism is a philosophy that affirms human importance rather than the importance of the divine. The novel does not offer religion or spirituality as a way to find meaning, grace, or purpose. Eleanor doesn’t believe, nor does anyone else.

A humanist method of seeing the world can have problems. I loved this book, but it is also interesting to pay attention to the views it promotes. Otherwise, honestly, I don’t have a lot of critiques for this book. It was well written, and the humor and scenes of connection between people were beyond beautiful.

However, there are other aspects to life than human beings: the appreciation of nature, a desire to learn about religion, and care for animals. Eleanor does get a pet cat, so she does connect with animals and a being other than humans. The cat was adorable. I was a bit skeptical at a couple of parts of the novel, though. Human connection is also not so perfect and pure at times. The novel is not open to religion or other ideas as an aid or solution, so the cure relies on humans and our ability to care for each other.

I will say the novel felt a little idealistic at times. Her coworkers, for instance, who disliked her before, throw a party for her. It feels a bit off. It was nice to see the people she works with putting her needs before their prejudices. They saw that she was struggling and were empathetic, even if she was a little odd. We must look out and care for each other. W.H. Auden says that “we must love one another or die.” That is brutal, but it is the reality of both life and this book. Without love for each other, life is simply worth living.

Look, Eleanor has her hobbies. She does her crossword puzzles and her daily rituals. Eleanor completes many tasks that the CDC would recommend for a healthy life: seeing people at work five days a week, going outside on walks, reading regularly, eating regular meals, and a well-balanced diet. Eleanor is also a professional success; she is a good employee, she works hard, and keeps her job. She doesn’t take sick days, she returns back from the weekends with her stress forgotten; she never lets her personal life affect the job. She attended university, and she keeps her brain active with puzzles…I could go on. But even if she didn’t live with trauma and depression, I don’t think Eleanor would be happy and satified with this alone. 

I think the point is that none of us should be. Gail Honeyman said of the book:

“Eleanor Oliphant isn’t me, or anyone I know [but] of course I’ve felt loneliness-everyone does.”

Gail Honeyman

The novel addresses the loneliness inside us and that everyone needs somebody. We need others and we need to be there for others when they are around and when they are alive. After all, we don’t live forever. The novel reminds us of that. I think this novel could show life as absolutely perfect if not for the fact that it ends.

The sections about death were tragic. Eleanor has no hope for an afterlife or anything beyond. It is sad, but the novel shows that death is part of life for all of us. Eleanor accepts death as a fact of life and still celebrates all the joys of living. Eleanor Oliphant’s world is filled with life. There are people on the bus and friends all around, there are parties and dancing and going to coffee with friends–those moments make life worth living for Eleanor. Her friendships and interactions with others are well-written and funny. To get on a less morbid topic, let’s talk about makeovers.

One of Eleanor’s decisions to get her crush, the musician, to like her is to get a makeover. I rarely like makeover scenes in movies, because they usually start with a protagonist who is happy with their appearance and then changes so that a love interest finds them attractive and so they can fit in with the popular kids. Eleanor’s makeover also made it seem like she had to change to be accepted by her coworkers. She keeps her sense of humor, but why does she have to get a makeover? This feels like a Disney movie. Eleanor is an adult, she shouldn’t have to change her appearance, which was nice. She took care of her appearance, so it is not like she was careless and sloppy or anything.

I also wish she’d stayed in touch with Sammy, the man whose life she saved’s family more. I would have liked to see her and Laura become friends, it seemed like a no-brainer. To pair a person who is more focused on appearances with a friend who doesn’t care at all could be entertaining. It would have been nice to have two close friends. Both could learn from each other, and Laura seemed pretty chill from what we know about her. They could learn from each other and support each other; after all, they both knew Sammy.

Otherwise, I found the novel uplifting. The message is that when you feel down and lonely, spending time with others is of great benefit. Eleanor learns this and also builds a friendship with Raymond. She doesn’t have to do life alone. She has a friend, and she also starts going to a counselor. The positive portrayal of seeking help was nice. Sometimes you need help in a professional setting as well.

It was also nice to watch Eleanor remain true to herself. She still likes crossword puzzles and has her quirky sense of humor, and no one expects or demands her to change. She also learns to accept others for who they are and to reserve judgment before knowing someone.

I cannot say enough how much I loved Raymond and their relationship. He is incredibly sweet and caring. His outgoing dorkiness and kindness are a perfect match for her blunt and nerdy eccentricity.

When I first read the description, I was expecting a romance between Eleanor and the IT guy (Raymond) to be the main plot, and I was pleasantly surprised when it was not the case. So many stories show the socially isolated and damaged characters finding a love interest that shows them how to live life to the fullest. Realistically, it is probably Eleanor needs time to work on herself and then start dating someone. Unfortunately, this is rarely true in a ton of books I see.

Like those romance covers that talk about a “bad boy” with a troubled past who finds a woman to love, and then she fixes him, and everything is okay, that is stupid. Eleanor thinks finding a guy will help her and she chases the hottest one she can find, but he is a terrible person. He also doesn’t care about a stranger he’s never met. He is a selfish idiot. I don’t get why any other results could have occurred if we look at the situation realistically. 

Confession: I have never read one of these bad-boy romance books, but I feel like I see them everywhere.

Honeyman’s decision to focus on Eleanor’s growth as a character is truly refreshing. There is a hint that something romantic might happen with them in the end, but it feels right. They have become friends first. Maybe dating could work out for them, maybe it wouldn’t, but the book gives us hope that their friendship will continue no matter what. She has a solid friendship and learns that isolation is not the answer.

Eleanor initially believes she is strong for being alone. She is independent, she doesn’t need anybody.

“Some people, weak people, fear solitude. What they fail to understand is that you don’t need anyone, you can take care of yourself.”

Eleanor

Is there a case that sometimes we need to be alone? Absolutely. Learning to enjoy quiet and solitude is an important life skill. It is a good thing to be able to spend a Friday night alone without plans and enjoy spending time by yourself. Friends sometimes have plans, and sometimes people are busy when you are free. You can learn from spending part of your day alone, but should we do this all the time? Absolutely not. After all, we do live in a community; life wasn’t meant to be lived alone. Humans are social creatures.

So, thinking of our need for others, I ask is Eleanor Completely Fine? The answer is no. No one is fine; nobody is perfectly happy alone. We all need alone time. Some need alone time more than others. That is why many introverts relate to this book; it is about being alone and how we like being alone, just not all the time. We all need other humans and to live in a community with each other. When we’re struggling, staying by ourselves isn’t always the answer.

It wasn’t the answer for Eleanor. Spending time with others gets us out of our heads, we can see how others live, how they experience life, and we can learn from them and care about them as they do for us. We need friends, and sometimes we need professional help to sort ourselves out.

Eleanor is a character who rejects using socially acceptable language. She is blunt and doesn’t think to stop and think before speaking. The word filter has probably never crossed her mind. Falsities are not Eleanor Oliphant, but she does tell one lie in particular. Eleanor is a woman with a giant vocabulary. Eleanor possesses extensive knowledge of words and language, but this one social norm cannot escape her, as it does for most of us. It is in conversation, under a burden of pain, that Eleanor grasps for one of the most overused expressions in the English language. When people ask how she is doing Eleanor Oliphant replies: “I am fine.”

If someone asks you how you are, you are meant to say FINE. You are not meant to say that you cried yourself to sleep last night because you hadn’t spoken to another person for two consecutive days. FINE is what you say.”

Eleanor Oliphant

To say this broke my heart would be an understatement. I want to reach out to Eleanor and, luckily, she has someone who does, and says to her. To quote Five Seconds of Summer, Eleanor, you are not fine; you’re really not fine at all, and that is okay. You don’t have to be, right now. You are not alone.

Have you read or heard of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine or have you read any novels with an odd protagonist and a human-centered message? I have a feeling there are more Eleanors to come, and I’m curious to see what they look like. There is also a movie coming out, which I am both excited and nervous about. As always, let me know down in the comments below.