The New York Times never asked my opinion: Reviewing bestseller “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine”


CW / Joe Will Field

Jenna Minser, Contributing Writer

The New York Times Never Asked My Opinion is a regular column reviewing New York Times Best Sellers. 

I had heard so much about Gail Honeyman’s debut novel Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine that when I finally picked it up, I didn’t even read the summary. Subsequently, I was wholly unprepared for almost 400 pages of the title character’s strange thoughts, complex emotional narrative and social peculiarities which provided for an incredibly funny, endearing and, at times, poignant journey with Eleanor. 

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine follows Ms. Eleanor Oliphant, a 30-year-old woman living in Glasgow, Scotland, and doing administrative work for a local graphic design firm. Eleanor is, to put it frankly, weird. A distinct sort of weirdness that often left me trying to guess her opinions on things as I read. Computers? Never owned one. Planning the company Christmas party? A complete waste of time. Getting a drink at a pub after work? As a rule, she doesn’t frequent public houses. Her failure at finding value in social traditions, along with the large, disfiguring scar that covers half her face, doesn’t leave her with too many friends. 

So when Eleanor falls deeply in love with singer Johnnie Lomond and unexpectedly becomes pals with IT specialist Raymond Gibbons, she’s thrust uttering and completely out of her comfort zone. 

I won’t lie: this book was odd. But, in the same vein, its hilariousness crept up on me. One page you’re hearing about Eleanor’s regular weekend plans (two bottles of vodka and reading about lizards). The next you’re being described her outrage after her first ever bikini wax (to impress Johnnie Lomond, whom she has never actually met, naturally). The constant shift between a sadness that surrounds Eleanor and this adventure to become a “normal adult human woman” results in an overwhelming affection towards Eleanor. You end up feeling like you’re on the journey with her, experiencing the twists and surprises of normal life just as much as she is. 

I was charmed by Eleanor, to say the least. As her story unfolds and you learn more about her past — why is she so awkward? And where did her scars come from? — this lovely little slice-of-life story almost becomes a thriller. Eleanor’s mother, whom she talks with on the phone once a week, has mysteries surrounding her that Eleanor not only won’t speak about, but seems to have completely pushed from her consciousness. She doesn’t want to know where Mummy is or why she’s there. It adds a lot to the book, which at times might have bordered on boring if it weren’t for Eleanor’s personality shouldering much of the plot. 

That’s the issue here, after all. Honeyman did a fantastic job building characters, not only with Eleanor, but also with the supporting cast. The inclusion of Johnnie Lomond’s ridiculous tweets (#blessed) and Raymond’s flirtation with another woman makes the story. Which means that the plot sometimes suffers because of Honeyman’s focus on showcasing the different personalities. 

The storyline of the first half of the book — Eleanor attempting to make Johnnie fall in love with her — feels forgotten a lot of the time. Johnnie is Eleanor’s obsession, or so is stressed at the opening of the novel, but the details of him are hot and cold. Eleanor will stalk his apartment for a chapter, and then he won’t be mentioned for another five. Once Eleanor’s mother’s plotline kicks up, the book becomes masterful. But, until then, the limp story of Johnnie hobbles along, failing to keep up with the quality and interest of Eleanor’s personality. 

Eleanor in and of herself is worth the read, but the mystery around Eleanor’s mother makes this the perfect book to enjoy when academic reading gets you down. While the plot suffers sometimes, the funny and interesting cast of characters more than makes up for it. 

Grade: A-