Eleanor Oliphant Is (Not) Completely Fine

I’ve just finished the novel Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. Based on the […]

Carrie Willard / 10.26.18

I’ve just finished the novel Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. Based on the stamp of approval from Reese Witherspoon on the front cover, I expected it to be a fluffy airplane read. My adorable-celebrity-as-book-recommender stereotype is misdirected, apparently, because this was not a story of a suburban mom “addicted” to shopping and eyelash extensions. Eleanor Oliphant is a different kind of protagonist.

Eleanor Oliphant is a rule-follower, and is not afraid to tell you about it. When her work acquaintance lights up a cigarette, she lists the toxic substances he’s inhaling, and then tells him: “I did briefly consider taking up smoking, but I thoroughly research all activities before commencement, and smoking did not in the end seem to me to be a viable or sensible pastime. It’s financially rebarbative too.”

Doesn’t she sound like she’d be fun at parties? (Don’t worry — she hates those, too.)

She eats for nutrition, and not for pleasure. She gets plenty of exercise, completes her work tasks on time and hardly ever takes a vacation day, and she sticks to a strict budget. She wears sensible shoes. She uses a bus pass instead of paying cash, and can tell you exactly how much money you’re wasting by not planning ahead. She also (surprise!) doesn’t have friends.

The book leads us through a metamorphosis in Eleanor, and explores the reasons behind her awkwardness and her rule-boundedness. A work acquaintance (the same one that was treated to her smoking diatribe) gently pulls her out of herself and into the world, where she begins to recognize her own oddities and quirks. This is painful for her, but eventually rewarding. We watch firsthand as Eleanor Oliphant begins to see herself for who she truly is, when she is both pleasantly and unpleasantly surprised. She realized how isolated she had been, and she describes her extreme loneliness in this way:

When I first started working [at this job], there was an older woman in the office, only a couple of months away from retirement. She was often absent to care for her sister, who had ovarian cancer. This older colleague would never mention the cancer, wouldn’t even say the word, and referred to the illness only in the most oblique terms. I understand that this approach was considered quite usual back then. These days, loneliness is the new cancer — a shameful, embarrassing thing, brought upon yourself in some obscure way. A fearful, incurable thing, so horrifying that you dare not mention it; other people don’t want to hear the word spoken aloud for fear that they might too be afflicted, or that it might tempt fate into visiting a similar horror upon them.

I think we all have a little bit of Eleanor Oliphant in us, honestly. The law convicts, but it’s so satisfying to apply it to others. It also has the power to make us achingly lonely. And as our awkward protagonist describes so well, nobody wants to hear about loneliness. In the Author’s Note, Gail Honeyman describes Eleanor’s loneliness and social awkwardness as “entwined and self-perpetuating.”

There is no magic cure for Eleanor Oliphant, and yet there is progress, thanks to the kindness of strangers who become friends. When we understand more of Eleanor’s background, we understand more of why she is the way that she is. She is, as it turns out, maybe better off than she thought she was.

Just as Eleanor Oliphant wasn’t fully able to look at her psyche in the mirror all at one time, I’m not sure any of us are ready for that Big Reveal. We’re all a little bit aware of what makes us annoying or hard to live with, but to see it all at once is too much, and we sometimes have to rely on others to gently pull us out of our own mess. In Eleanor Oliphant’s case, she is not only revealed to herself to be awkward and sometimes difficult, but also lovable in a way she did not know was possible, in spite of her quirks. She is accepted for who she is.

Eleanor Oliphant’s friends might be a little bit more like Jesus than your friends. They might be more accepting of her quirkiness-bordering-on-rudeness. But honestly, I’ve seen plenty of real-life people tolerate a lot of social awkwardness with a good amount of grace and humor.

I don’t have any solutions for the big problem of loneliness. But Eleanor Oliphant teaches us an important lesson about forgiveness: as soon as she sees the need for forgiveness in herself, it becomes almost natural for her to extend forgiveness to others. She can’t see her own need for forgiveness in a vacuum, though — she needs other people to reflect that reality back to her. And so, more bad news for those of us who are introverts — we need each other. Desperately. We are designed for connection with others, even when it leads to painful self-reflection.

The good news, even for the introverts among us: this means we don’t have to do it alone. Jesus, who didn’t need forgiveness, still needed and wanted his friends with him, even when they acted like Eleanor Oliphant (or worse). The law-minders were among his favorite people (to correct).

Eleanor Oliphant Is (Eventually) Completely Fine, thanks to forgiveness and mercy and the kindness of others.