This is my review from Goodreads, which I find useful to keep track of the books I read. Sometimes, I like or dislike a book enough to dig into the specifics. Eleanor Oliphant was one of them, which is why I’m posting the entire review here. I feel bad about not liking this book, because it was lent to me by a friend who loves it, several other friends have said they love it, and I recommended it to my sister because of that. Nonetheless, I didn’t love it, and here’s why.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I’m going to have to respectfully disagree with most people about this book. It starts well, and with promise. We have a voice-y main character, Eleanor, who quickly establishes herself both as that weird person in the office that most people hate (think, Dwight Schrute on The Office), but so lonely and weird and with a secret and an abusive mother, so the reader sympathizes, and grows to like her, even while we would be utterly exasperated with her as an actual co-worker.
Eleanor is put in a series of scenes meant to highlight these characteristics. Some of these work well, most of them with Eleanor interacting with other characters, others for me fell flat and strained credulity, like the scenes with the bikini wax and manicure. It’s a hard balance, having Eleanor be a socially inept outsider, but still have a basic knowledge of life on Earth, and it doesn’t always come off. At their best, the scenes are both funny and sad. At worst, they are awkward and a bit mean spirited.
All along, bits of the secret of Eleanor’s past are dribbled out like breadcrumbs on a path, and they are tantalizing. The problem is I found the secrets easy to guess, and not credible in the end. So withholding the information to the end made me cast a grim eye over the entirety of the book. If the ending and its revelations worked for you, then you’re going to have a better experience.
SPOILERS FROM HERE:
The plot is paint by numbers easy: Eleanor has a crush, Eleanor’s crush ends in disaster, Eleanor is helped by friends, gets an inner and outer makeover, and finishes the book by confronting her secret, and with a new love interest. To the book’s credit, the middle crisis is way darker and serious than I might have expected, and I appreciated both its drama, and that it took the last third of the book to resolve, rather than wrapping things up quickly and simplistically. Still, things did feel overly trite for me in the resolution, even though it did not happen in an instant.
It’s the last third of the book, with the cliched makeovers and relationship with a therapist who “helps” her confront her demons, that lost me. I wonder what a therapist who read this book would think, because I was as cringing and horrified as Eleanor at the therapist who pushed her traumatized patient to confront trauma and then ended sessions and booted her out on the street. This felt very much like fictional therapist and fictional trauma, because it was handled so glibly. And it spoils the effect of the happy ending, because it doesn’t feel earned.
About the reveal of the secrets. That there was a sibling was obvious to me from the get go. To go from wondering if the mother is in a mental institution or prison throughout, to finding out she was a figment of the imagination (it was just a dream?) was disappointing. Boring, even.
Speaking of boring, to have Raymond date the perfectly nice Laura, break up with her in a few sentences, and finish the book as the seeming potential love interest of Eleanor’s? All this did not ring true, and merely highlighted how other than Eleanor, none of the other characters have more than two dimensions. Raymond is the overweight nice guy who smokes. Is there much to his character beyond this?
If this book had been well executed, with more dimensional characters, less emphasis on the secrets, and less cliche in Eleanor’s transformation, it would have been a solid, fun read.
As is, I feel like the hype machine got hold of it, elevated a mostly conventional character study/romance to bestseller status, and that’s part of why I am so disappointed in this book. You can do better, Penguin editing team. There were things that could have been tightened and improved. I can see why people like it, but the faults, to me, are too glaring for me to recommend it.
A book I liked better that had trauma, mystery, fire, Austen and Bronte nods was Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale. And an author who does a good job of having a well rounded cast of characters intereacting over a complex plot is Kate Atkinson. I was reminded of her debut, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, and her Jackson Brodie series.
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