When a very good friend in Glasgow texted me especially but urgently to recommend a book, I took note. “This needs to be on your shortlist”, Susan wrote, “I’m half way through. Great book… sad and hilarious”. Susan was right: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman is beautifully sad and touchingly hilarious. It’s also compelling and heartwarming. What’s more, it works brilliantly as an audiobook.
Eleanor Oliphant is a young Glaswegian woman who works as an accounts clerk. Her situation would be perfectly average except that she is utterly alone in the world. She has, by choice, created a life in which she doesn’t need anyone, and no one needs her. Her only companion is her houseplant Polly: “some people, weak people, fear solitude. What they fail to understand is that you don’t need anyone, you can take care of yourself”. The reader gradually learns that Eleanor has existed like this for years as a result of a childhood trauma. Over the course of the novel however, circumstances and chance encounters chip away at her social isolation.
On one level, this is a book about loneliness, as well as the routines and structures that people can build to protect themselves against it. But it’s also a book about kindness and the compassionate acts of strangers that can literally change the course of a life. Honeyman has done a wonderful job in creating characters and a narrative that break your heart, whilst simultaneously warming it.
Don’t be thinking this is a book burdened by emotional sandbags – it’s also laugh out loud funny. Eleanor’s eccentricity and social awkwardness creates toe-curling interactions with strangers and her Asperger-like frankness leads to scenes of comic genius. Through all of Eleanor’s interactions, Honeyman conveys important messages: don’t make hasty assumptions about people, do be kind, family and friends really matter. They’re messages we hear frequently, but in this novel they resonate freshly and compellingly.
I listened to this book while on a 16 hour round road trip to Adelaide; the closed in space of the car was a perfect place to listen to the details of Eleanor’s claustrophobic world. The narrator, Cathleen McCarron, did a great job in bringing out the nuances of each character, while not becoming a personality herself.
Reese Witherspoon’s film company has bought the rights to this book. Let’s hope that when transposed into film, the setting is still Glasgow; there’s so much in the characters and the setting that are typically and perfectly of that city. Honeyman has said that Glasgow was a deliberate choice as, despite its rough reputation, ‘it’s a very kind city’.
For all these reasons (as well as because my friend Susan advises it) put this book on your to read list. You will love it.