Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine , Gail Honeyman
I bought Eleanor Oliphant in a supermarket because it was cheap and everyone was reading it. In my pre-writing life, I didn’t rush to books that everyone was reading, not from stubbornness but from snobbery. Now I find myself drawn to the popular, and as someone who has always had ideas at the wrong time, or presented them to the wrong people, I am fairly suddenly and unexpectedly interested in what lots of people like to read, and why and how so many people can be drawn to one idea.
Books like Eleanor Oliphant existed before, but recently they’ve been given the label ‘up-lit’. This means really that the book can be about anything, but probably its protagonists are normal, everyday people – they could be you! – who suffer great adversities, and then triumph. Ok, that’s the plot of pretty much all stories, but this up-lit business has to have a real feel-good ending.
This story, Gail Honeyman’s debut, starts off in a very bleak place. Eleanor Oliphant is boring. She is stuck in a boring job with awful colleagues. She has no friends, and no family. She eats the same thing every lunch-time, and drinks the same voddy every weekend. She is an innocent, we understand from the beginning – something terrible happened in her past – why has this limited lot befallen her?
Honeyman manages that very fine line between drawing a flawed protagonist that readers can empathise with, and an unlikeable shit who no-one wants to read another word about, admirably. I don’t love Oliphant, actually, and feel guilty about it when anyone brings it up, but I do really like her and want to find out how she gets on in life. So do plenty of other people, as it won the Costa First Novel award in 2017, and is a Sunday Times bestseller.
The twist is unexpected and a little far-fetched, but I enjoy the extra layer it brings, which forces you to look back at the story with the scales fallen from your eyes. And it looks closely at how we form and maintain human relationships, and how important those relationships are to our survival.