Heaven: November Book Club - Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

SarasaSarasa Shipmate
edited January 16 in Limbo
The Book choice for November is Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman.
As usual I'll post some questions on the 20th, but in the meantime I hope you give this book a whirl. I thoroughly enjoyed it and as the link says it is very funny and in places very moving. Copies should be fairly easy to get hold of. I think quite a few book groups must have 'done' this book, as copies keep on turning up in the charity book shop where I volunteer. So check there if you can't get it via your local library.


  • TrudyTrudy Heaven Host
    There's a 14-week waiting list at my library, so I might not be able to get it in time ... should have gotten my name in sooner!
  • finelinefineline Kerygmania Host
    I have been looking in charity shops for ages for this book and not found it, so I gave up and got the Kindle version, which is £3.99, so not too expensive.
  • I'd like to join in this month.
  • Schroedingers CatSchroedingers Cat Shipmate, Waving not Drowning Host
    Yay! A book I have actually read! I will definately join in.

    And it is a great read.
  • Not usually a novel reader myself but that book does sound tempting, the subject matter is right up my street.
  • I'm in too!
  • I’ve read this. Will keep an eye on the thread.
  • I devoured this book in a couple of days. An easy read in some senses but very touching and thought provoking in others. And humorous too.
  • We read this at my book club and all agreed it was very quick to read, and enjoyable. I'll be interested to hear people's reactions on here.
  • This is my book group’s current book, so I’ll be watching this thread. I enjoyed reading this after having been reluctant to start it, and totally agree with @not entirely me.
  • Good there are a few people joining in this month. Should make for a good discussion. It's a quick read, so still time to join us.
    I just started re-reading it last night. I always find second reads of things interesting.
  • It's the 20th so time for a few questions. I'm still in the middle of re-reading the book so will post my thoughts in a few days. To get as started some questions. Feel free to add others.

    1. This book has been described as about loneliness. Do you agree that this is the main theme?
    2. There are some very funny and some very moving scenes. Any particular favourites?
    3. What did you think of Eleanor herself as a character?'

  • I expect to finish it today - it's certainly an interesting read.

    At first I thought the book was the love-child of Adrian Mole and Bridget Jones, but soon got disabused of that notion!
  • Schroedingers CatSchroedingers Cat Shipmate, Waving not Drowning Host
    I will start by responding to the first question. Loneliness - yes, I think this is very much what the story is about. But in a lot of depth - it explores why people can be lonely, why people struggle to relate to others.

    It is endearing and truthful in this, because there is so much loneliness in busyness. Loneliness is not just about never seeing people. It is about never being able to let yourself engage with them.
  • I just finished it this morning and will answer my own questions in due course. A couple of supplementary questions.

    4. How reliable a narrator is Eleanor?
    5. Have you thought about what will happen next. Do you think Eleanor and Raymond will become a couple for instance?

  • Schroedingers CatSchroedingers Cat Shipmate, Waving not Drowning Host
    Q5 - I think that is something for another book, because it is a work in progress. They have both learned a lot about themselves in the story, and that process is continuing. So they will spend some time together, and it may work out or it may not - because they are not fixed entities.

    Of course that is always the case, but I feel the point in this book is that Eleanor is just starting to change and learn.
  • Sarasa wrote: »
    It's the 20th so time for a few questions. I'm still in the middle of re-reading the book so will post my thoughts in a few days. To get as started some questions. Feel free to add others.

    1. This book has been described as about loneliness. Do you agree that this is the main theme?
    2. There are some very funny and some very moving scenes. Any particular favourites?
    3. What did you think of Eleanor herself as a character?'

    Q1 - Perhaps it's more about isolation than loneliness; EO is totally out of touch with the ways in which most people interact with each other. I've known folk like that.

    Q2 - Where on earth did she get the idea that she needed a bikini wax? Hilarious.

    Q33 - She's certainly entirely believable, and would drive me crazy if she shared any aspect of my daily life. Poor dab, as my Swansea friends would say.
  • 1. Yes. The bit about how she doesn't speak to anyone from the bus driver on Friday night to the one on Monday morning was very sad. Also it's about trauma and friendship.

    2. Going for a manicure: "would you like to book another visit?" "No, I can do it better myself for free"! And the cat being sick and then eating it, and Eleanor thinks, "Great, low maintenance female."

    3. Very well done, the humour of her social ineptness is balanced with the sadness of her situation, and her determination to change.

    4. Obviously the mummy thing is her greatest unreliability, but it describes the conversations as she experiences them. And she describes Raymond's reactions to her without understanding why he reacts as he does.

    5. Well, I hope they stay friends, anyway! She seems to be on a good path and relating better to her co-workers too, so you get the feeling she's going to be all right. She's clearly a survivor.
  • 1. This book has been described as about loneliness. Do you agree that this is the main theme? I think @Andras probably has it right with it being about isolation rather than loneliness. Eleanor doesn't twig, at least not at first, that she is lonely, but she is certainly isolated.

    2. There are some very funny and some very moving scenes. Any particular favourites?
    Her rather inappropriate chatter to the unconscious Sammy made me laugh out loud, as did her dragging Raymond to the death metal gig. The scene where Keith brought round the jumper of Sammy's that Eleanor admired was very moving. I also though the scene of her naked under the kitchen table was really well done, specially the first time I read it.

    3. What did you think of Eleanor herself as a character? I rather liked her. On the first reading I thought she had Asperger's Syndrome, though Honeyman says that is not what she was intending to portray, just someone who had so little social interaction she didn't know how to act appropriately.

    5. How reliable a narrator is Eleanor?. The Mummy conversations are the most obvious unreliable bits but I rather liked all her kidding herself that she is eating healthily when she's downing so many ready meals and vodka.

    5. Have you thought about what will happen next. Do you think Eleanor and Raymond will become a couple for instance?. Eleanor certainly seems on the way to a better life. I don't know if she'll end up with Raymond, but I think she's on the way to having a less lonely life.

    I did think the ending was rather optimistic. The fact that Eleanor got some very good counselling for a start without having to wait for ever, and the fact that her co-workers suddenly seemed to understand her personality were two things I thought might not happen in real life.
  • Schroedingers CatSchroedingers Cat Shipmate, Waving not Drowning Host
    I have been thinking on Q4 - how reliable a narrator is Eleanor. I think she is honest - she is not being deliberately deceptive - she tells things as she sees them, with total honesty. But the revelations obout her mother mean that everything you have read is thrown into a new light. It becomes clear that her perceptions of the world is very badly damaged. And that puts her reliability as a narrator in doubt.

    So I think I would conclude that he is an unreliabile narrator. There are some aspects that it is clear she has a mistaken grasp, but I them become suspicious that her grasp of what is actually going on is (maybe) even more damaged than we have gathered.
  • finelinefineline Kerygmania Host
    I'm just halfway through this book, but I hope it's okay to write my thoughts so far, because it seems one of these books where your thoughts might change by the end.

    It seems to me the author sees it as a book about loneliness, as the novel starts with a quote from The Lonely City, specifically about loneliness, and the specific kind of loneliness experienced by people 'whose loneliness arises from a state of loss or exile or prejudice, who have reason to fear or mistrust as well as long for the society of others.' All of these seem to apply to Eleanor - she has lost her family, was 'exiled', I guess, from her last foster family, who were unable to cope with her, is treated with prejudice because of poor social skills and the way she looks, and definitely has reason to fear and mistrust others. And the quote goes on to say 'the lonelier someone gets, the less adept they get at navigating social currents,' which does seem to be the case here - her isolation has made her unfamiliar with various social conventions.

    I'm finding the humour in the novel a little odd, as it mostly seems to be at Eleanor's expense. And the moving bits can seem a bit patronising - it's like the novel is written in such a way that we are kind of at a distance from Eleanor, laughing at her or pitying her, but never fully inside her head. Even though we are being given her thoughts, it's very much orchestrated by the author to create certain effects. Another effect is suspense - her trauma is a plot device, where we are given little hints.

    And because of this, I am not sure what I think of Eleanor. She doesn't seem quite real. I mean, what we are shown of her mind doesn't seem the full story of what she would be experiencing, even given the fact that she has post traumatic stress and denial going on. And her social faux pas are inconsistent and kind of done for comedy effect. It seems odd that she wouldn't simply ask what the different kinds of bikini wax are, explaining that she's never had one before - that is her approach in other new situations, such as the pub. When her co-workers call her a Grinch and she tells them she doesn't understand the cultural reference, there's actually no way she could know that is a cultural reference - it could also be a slang term she hasn't come across before, or an in-joke, or all sorts of things (I know this from myself often being in the position of social confusion, not knowing what someone means - sometimes it's from not knowing a cultural reference, but you can't automatically know this).

    She is an unreliable narrator, yes - both a 'madman' and a 'naif', using the definitions here. She clearly has repressed memories, and things she can't tell us as she hasn't allowed herself to acknowledge them - there are lots of indiciations of this. We even see the notes on the meeting with her foster parents, which she dismisses as lies, and there is clearly all sorts of unspoken stuff when the social worker visits. And there are lots of times when she interprets a social situation in a way that is a mix of naive and paranoid, and we are given information to know she is misinterpreting. A kind of 'nudge nudge wink wink' thing the author is doing.

    But also there is an unreliability which seems to be just the author doing plot devices. The conversations with her mother are kind of surreal, because she describes them in an uncharacteristically vague way. They are not phone conversations, as a phone is never mentioned, and she's said the main phone calls she gets are from sales people, and she's too precise in her language not to talk about a phone ringing or hanging up if it was a phone call. And there's the vagueness of where her mother is - if these were genuine conversations, she'd be precise in telling us, because she is precise in details. It's a mix of the vagueness of flashbacks and repression with the specifics of dialogue. So this is a mysterious thing the author is doing, to intrigue us and make us wonder. I'm torn between trying to analyse and just letting myself be surprised at the end, because I like surprises in novels, but also I like analysing. I'm guessing her mother is dead, as that would account for the vagueness of where she is. And that these conversations are a weird kind of flashback/hallucination, controlled to some extent, a kind of reliving, trying to create some order, to set some boundaries with her mother. There is clearly a younger sister who died - I'm wondering if the mother and sister died together in the fire.

    It's kind of like reading a psychological thriller, but also more superficial, a bit Bridget Jonesy too - the crush on the singer, the gradual makeover, starting going to parties, etc. Eleanor seems to be undergoing a transformation of doing typical girly things that women in chicklit stories do, and so therefore becoming more 'normal.' And also along with this, learning to trust people and feel more compassion and make friends. I find this a bit daft - the idea that learning to trust and to experience compassion and companionship go side-by-side with having a make-over and going to parties! As if the whole make-over thing is part of becoming a whole and healthy human being! But then trauma is a bit of a heavy subject, so adding humour and chicklit type stuff and warm, cosy bits is more likely to make it a bestseller. I'm only halfway through the novel, so I will wait and see how it develops.
  • 1. This book has been described as about loneliness. Do you agree that this is the main theme?

    I agree with Sarasa and Andras that it is more about isolation than loneliness. Eleanor is in a vicious circle; the less she socialises with other people, the less she knows how to.

    2. There are some very funny and some very moving scenes. Any particular favourites?

    I enjoyed a lot of the one liner asides, such as Eleanor's disapproval of Raymond adding sugar to his Americano, whilst she is drinking coffee with extra cream and hazelnut syrup.

    3. What did you think of Eleanor herself as a character?

    I liked her. She has tenacity. I think everyone has Eleanor moments when they find themselves amongst people who know a lot about something baffling (football, reality TV stars, whatever) and don't know what the correct response is. Eleanor's whole life is like that.

    4. How reliable a narrator is Eleanor?.

    She is truthful, but not reliable.

    5. Have you thought about what will happen next. Do you think Eleanor and Raymond will become a couple for instance?

    I hope not. Ideally, Eleanor will meet a friend / cousin of Raymond's, he will meet someone else, and Eleanor and Raymond will continue to have a warm relationship. I see them as an uncle / aunt to each other's children, rather than co-parents.
  • finelinefineline Kerygmania Host
    I finished reading this today. I was a bit disappointed, as I thought there would be a big surprise at the end, but it pretty much was as I expected. Though I had thought maybe Eleanor herself had caused the fire, either as a mistake or as a way to try to get her and her sister to escape - which would be an additional layer of guilt for her. But her mother starting it makes sense too, The second part of the book, 'Bad Days', seemed a more realistic response to the trauma, as a whole. I guess it seems to me that even with all the defence mechanisms and repression, the repressed trauma would still have had a messier effect in her life, overall, especially with all that drinking over the weekend. It seemed a bit of a simplistic healing from it too. It would be messier, more difficult, in a real life situation. But it's a novel, created to entertain, so things are simpler.

    I still don't really like the whole makeover aspect of it - it seems a bit simplistic that this is what gets people to start warming to her, the fact that she is suddenly making an effort with her appearance. Suddenly her colleagues are friendly because she gets her hair done. I was wondering if the same would apply to Raymond - as his clothes are apparently childish and scruffy, and his posture poor, and his table manner lacking. It would make sense that he should have a makeover too, and learn to not slurp his food or speak with his mouth full! But nope, nothing needs to change with him, apparently. It's just the woman who needs to change, and part of her changing is to put up with his flaws.

    I'm being a bit critical, I guess. I think I was expecting something deeper, a more in-depth look at the complex effects of childhood trauma. This seemed more simplistic and chicklitty. I didn't really get a sense of Eleanor as an individual - more just a bundle of humorous social faux pas and sad repressed trauma, someone to be laughed at and pitied and rooted for and smiled at. And hey, she gets the internet, she gets a cat and takes cat photos - so she somehow succeeds as the epitome of a modern woman! I guess it's one of those books that has a lot of hype and doesn't quite live up to it. But I'm glad I read it.

    I do think it was about loneliness, though, not simply about isolation. The loneliness is caused by isolation, caused by trauma, as the quote at the beginning suggests, but it does seem to be loneliness that is the main issue, the barrier that Eleanor wants to overcome. She wants to connect with others, to feel people care for her, to have human touch and contact. And she becomes more aware of this as she has more contact with people and realises what she is missing. The crush on the singer didn't quite ring true for me, but it seemed necessary, plotwise, as the catalyst to motivate her to start making changes to her life.

    As for what happens next, I think the author deliberately lets us know that there is a possible romantic future for Eleanor and Raymond, as Raymond decides Laura is too high maintenance for him. It's one of those endings that lets you know things are hopeful, but with nothing definite. I just see it that they are two fictional characters and nothing happens unless the author writes a sequel. I wish I cared more what happens next, but the characters didn't quite become fully real for me, but more pawns in a clever plot. I will be interested to watch the movie version though.
  • So many things struck me from this book, and most have been covered above. What I think hasn’t been covered is the emptiness of Eleanor’s weekends which has recently been officially identified as a common experience for many people, young and old, and her way of coping with that by drinking herself into oblivion.
  • @fineline - Interesting that you picked up on there being a sister and the oddness with the mother before you got to the 'reveal'. I was pretty sure that things weren't as they seemed with the mother, but it took the re-reading to see the bits about the sister.
    I agree that the things Eleanor was doing to make herself attractive for the musician did seem a bit 'chicklitty', but I guess they were among the random books she was reading. I agree that the end seemed to happen much more quickly than I think it would in real life. I would think it would be far more gradual than that, but it is after all fiction. I actually thought Raymond was a pretty well drawn character. There are very few books with someone quite so ordinary in them.
  • I wonder why, when Eleanor's name was changed to protect her anonymity, Oliphant was chosen? I love Margaret Oliphant's books, which have some great female characters. I wonder if Gail Honeyman is a fan? Margaret Oliphant's female characters tend to be astute women who learn to work the system. A system which, in Victorian times, was not set up to be advantageous to women.
  • finelinefineline Kerygmania Host
    Sarasa, that’s interesting, as the sister was the more obvious thing to me, the moment Eleanor was talking about the light brown eyes of the singer reminding her of someone small and vulnerable, with the same eyes as herself, and then the social worker asking ‘Do you miss her?’ I thought at first it was a baby daughter Eleanor had had, but the various flashbacks later indicated it was a sibling. But with the mother, like you, I knew there was something not as it seemed, but until people here started posting about there being a surprise about her, I didn’t think too much about it. I thought it was going to be a bigger surprise, though. I thought we would find out more info, and that there was more that Eleanor had repressed from her memory.

    I agree, Raymond is an ordinary character. That seems to be his role, I thought - a nice, ordinary, kind guy, so that Eleanor can get to understand ‘normality’, and see her own experience in the light of it. He is not one of the in-crowd, who laugh at her, but a new guy who is a bit awkward in gait and clothing and manners, but sensitive from taking care of an elderly mother.

    I did find it a bit annoying that Eleanor needs to have a make-over to polish her up externally in order to be accepted, and Raymond doesn’t! But that is a thing I notice in society too, at least among young people. As a socially awkward person myself, who was often whispered about and laughed at, my peers were always genuinely warm and friendlier to me if I did something to make my appearance more trendy when I was younger - they seemed to take it as a kind of personal acceptance of them and their norms, and expressed they were pleased I was ‘making an effort’ to fit in with trends, and then they wanted to do makeovers on me, kind of seeing me as a cute pet! This doesn’t seem to happen with blokes.
  • I think that Raymond doesn't "need" a makeover because he looks scruffy but normal. Jeans, T-shirt, trainers: you wouldn't look twice at him in the street. He may be scruffy, but he blends in. The impression is that "before" Eleanor had a look which didn't blend in. I don't know what her "jerkin" looks like but it sounds unusual. Her working wardrobe comprised "2 pairs of black trousers and five white blouses Well, they were white originally" If she's been wearing black trousers, a white blouse and black velcro shoes every day for months (or years) that would quickly look "odd."
  • finelinefineline Kerygmania Host
    Though men often wear the same simple outfit every day, and it doesn't get commented on. Whereas if a woman does it, lots of comments and criticisms happen - remember the experiment that Nadia Swahala did to illustrate this. Society is okay with men being scruffy, or being formal, or wearing the same outfit day after day - all this is seen as normal, as you say. Whereas there is much more pressure on women to look a certain way, and much less acceptance of variation. I would have liked it if Eleanor could have become more accepted in her workplace by people getting to know her as a person and challenging their stereotypes, rather than by her simply having a makeover.
  • Yes, I agree with you there. My son wears the same outfit every time he's working in public - black jeans, white T-shirt, black leather jacket, black Doc Martens. Every. Single. Time.
  • @North East Quine I too wondered whether Eleanor's name was a nod to Margaret Oliphant. Must have a re-read of her books.
  • It's a while since I've read any, but Margaret's Oliphant's characters operate within a strict class / religious structure and have to understand the rules in order to subvert or manipulate them. Eleanor doesn't want to subvert the rules, but there's the same notion of having to understand them. I might be reading more into this than is there, because of the Oliphant name. It's quite a striking name.

    And then there's the Eleanor / Marianne combination, echoing Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, which is flagged up within Eleanor Oliphant. I'd have to re-read Sense and Sensibility to see the significance of that.
  • finelinefineline Kerygmania Host
    I saw Eleanor Oliphant's name as being a play on elephant, if you take the first letters of Eleanor and the last letters of Oliphant. She says she chose her own surname, so I was imagining she did it on purpose as a play on words - she was only ten, after all. But I haven't read Margaret Oliphant - it does make sense she would choose a name of an author she liked.

    And yes, also the play of Eleanor and Marianne with Sense and Sensibility. Elinor is the stoic sister in that, who doesn't let her emotions dictate how she behaves or stop her getting on with life, while Marianne is led more by her emotions, thinking that if her heart is broken everything must stop and she can't do anything, and she becomes ill and nearly dies - but she doesn't. Eleanor comments on how the happy ending of Sense and Sensibility is unrealistic but satisfying.
  • I've passed my copy on to Mrs. Andras, who's enjoying it after a slow start, and it's interesting to see that she's made the (natural?) assumption that Mummy is in jail. I'm curious to find out her reaction when she finds that she isn't.

    Question: would it have been a better book (though probably not so popular!) if it had ended up with Eleanor reverting to her previous life?
  • Schroedingers CatSchroedingers Cat Shipmate, Waving not Drowning Host
    I assumed mummy was in jail. Then I thought she might be in a psychiatric hospital or similar. I slowly realised there was something more to it than that.

    Eleanors makeover - I think this is really an external representation of the internal change. So it is showing publically what is happening internally, and so she is being accepted for the changes being made.

    Maybe it would have worked if her work colleagues had seen the changes in her more, but this is really a standard literary trick to speed up the action. They would have seen the changes, but over a lot longer time period. Also, she seemed to deliberately wish to avoid her colleagues. The external changes were a way of her signalling that this was changing, so they could approach her.
  • When I read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry I knew from the start that the son who was 'phoning ' was dead. In this book I think Honeyman is subtler. On the first reading I didn't pick up that the mother was dead necessarily , I just thought that there was something going on that we weren't privy too.
    As for the make-over, I think its quite clever it goes from something hidden, the bikini wax through to things that are more obvious ending up with the bold new haircut.
  • Schroedingers CatSchroedingers Cat Shipmate, Waving not Drowning Host
    Sarasa wrote: »
    As for the make-over, I think its quite clever it goes from something hidden, the bikini wax through to things that are more obvious ending up with the bold new haircut.

    Actually, that is an interesting take - from a private "haircut" to a public haircut.
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