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Gail Honeyman – Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

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Absolutely… positively… really…

Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 381
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-008-17211-4
First Published: 9th May 2017
Date Reviewed:
Rating: 5/5

Eleanor’s life is orderly, if dull – breakfast, work, dinner, The Archers or television, and bed – but it works. She’s been through a lot but now has her own place to live, and apart from the irritating visits from the social workers who gawp at her when she speaks about her history, and the co-workers who joke behind her back, she reckons life is okay. She has her dependable clothes and her shopper bag/trolley, her plant from her childhood, and her mismatched furniture. But when at a concert she ‘recognises’ the singer as the man she’ll spend her life with; she also meets a new co-worker who takes a genuine interest in her, which is difficult for Eleanor to accept because he dresses far too casually and smokes. Life is about to fall away from its schedule and potentially become a lot better, and Eleanor’s not used to that at all.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is a book about the effects on adulthood of childhood trauma and a lack of support.

This is an incredibly well-told story. It offers both a first-hand source (if fictional) and a lot of sub-textual information for the reader about what it’s like to be apart from society for reasons that the person in question has had no control over. It offers a glimpse of how ‘othering’ such situations can be, and requests more emphatic assessments of the wider, factual, world.

Honeyman’s book is powerful, showing all the different factors of Eleanor’s life – the upbringing via memories and impact, the here and now, the pitiful ‘support’ she receives. However it is in the plotting itself and the ‘showing’ in the larger sense – show not tell – that the book is so effective. Through the use of the first-person narrative and never wavering from displaying all the socially awkwardness, ignorance, and learned-intolerance that Eleanor has, you get a complete picture of everything – why Eleanor is as she is, how others react and why. (Eleanor describes people’s reactions to what she says, enabling you to see and fully understand what’s happening even when she doesn’t – which is the usual situation.) Honeyman does all this slowly; never losing sight of the fact a novel should provide entertainment of some sort, she ekes out the story itself whilst being bit swifter when it comes to describing who Eleanor is; even if you get a solid idea early on as to what’s happened, not everything is provided until the end, which leaves Honeyman able to show Eleanor’s progression towards healing and remembering exactly why she was put into care.

Of the foster care and children’s homes of Eleanor’s past, Honeyman is blunt, detailing situations that would still warrant question, such as a child being moved on because her grief and trauma manifested in ways that people couldn’t – or wouldn’t – handle. Honeyman does not analyse the receptions the young Eleanor received, instead her focus is on how an unstable home life continue to impact her. Of the support the character receives in adulthood, Honeyman states clearly in subtext: not good enough. Eleanor’s been given a flat, filled with second-hand, often inappropriate, furniture. She found her own job. The social workers don’t actually do anything beyond showing up infrequently to check she’s okay and – as it’s often a new person – to simply gawp in surprise at what they read in their files. It’s down to society, who doesn’t have the knowledge or experience, to actually help her, and as Honeyman shows, Eleanor is a lucky one, finding people who truly care.

It’s difficult being in the character’s head – her mother taught her intolerance of many different types of people and Eleanor struggles to push away that programming – and for a while in the book, Eleanor’s life is dull, but the writing keeps you going. Due to her mother’s programming, the English is an interesting mix of language, beginning in a fashion most correct and slowly progressing towards a combination of very correct English and very modern phrasing.

Needless to say the characterisation is top-notch, the main characters in particular brought fully to life.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is difficult to take in but not difficult to read, the author wanting her readers to understand everything clearly. And it’s worth every moment, the literary features culminating in a fantastic whole but each being enjoyable – in a literary way – in themselves.

Related Books

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January 2019 Reading Round Up

For the most part, January was a very busy month – Christmas clean up, improvements; I kept going with the books I was already reading and, knowing I’d likely not finish those by February, added easy novels for a sense of achievement. I’m reading quite a bit for discussion posts – it’s a lot of pages in total, just no entire books to speak of.

All books are works of fiction.

The Books

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Eloisa James: When Beauty Tamed The Beast – Having unintentionally caused high society to think she’s pregnant, unmarried Linnet is sent to the home of a notoriously difficult doctor who cannot give his father a grandchild. Strictly okay – works best if viewed wholly in the context of its inspiration, both the original story and the use of Hugh Laurie’s Doctor House.

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Eloisa James: The Duke Is Mine – Betrothed to her father’s friend’s son since birth, Olivia accompanies her twin sister to the house of the Duke of Sconce in order to aid their pairing, but finds herself drawn to the Duke herself. This is loosely based on The Princess And The Pea; it’s alright, but has a similar problem as the previous book in terms of hero.

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Gail Honeyman: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine – Lacking social skills, Eleanor lives on the fringes of life, getting through the week by going to work, watching television, and drinking a lot; over the course of the book we see how her life has been shaped by a traumatic childhood and a lack of support going forward. An utterly fantastic book.

In Honeyman’s novel, I believe I’ve found one of my ‘best of 2019’ books already. I wasn’t personally keen on the way the weekly phone calls were resolved, but everything other than that I loved, and objectively the resolution does work well.

For February, other than a vague plan to read the Kelby I listed previously, I’m staying away from lists. I’ve found I’m doing that ‘all the books’ thing where getting excited about what you can read means you don’t actually start; the less books I have in mind, the more I might read.

What has been your favourite book so far this year?

 
Musings On The Importance Of Contexts When Forming An Opinion Of Characters

A photograph of three books: Vanity Fair, Anna Karenina, and David Copperfield

In trying to write about a particular character, I reached a point where I couldn’t continue without considering the author’s reason for including that character. This of course led me to consider the oft-debated topic of whether we should view a text in the context of its writer. And due to the fact that what I’d been working on had been inspired by a discussion about a character from not only a different book but different type of book, I’d also recognised the difficulties in applying any sort of template to a character study.

Of backgrounds, if we use my inspiration (Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina) and the character I wanted to write about (Diana Gabaldon’s Claire Fraser/Randall), it’s immediately obvious; you can’t apply or, generally, so much as consider, the characters from a similar perspective without soon finding yourself in a bit of a quandary. Anna Karenina is – spoilers incoming – a way for Tolstoy to discuss the different ways society treated infidelity depending on gender – and Claire Fraser is the way in which Gabaldon explores the idea of romance in the context of time travel. It would be difficult to compare the two characters – there’s little reason to – and likewise, it’s difficult to apply the same modes of thinking to a character study for each, beyond insignificant (to their stories) details. How they takes their tea? Perhaps.

Context of all kinds allows us to give reason for motivations and thinking, and the author context is a part of that. Both need establishing for the rest to work.

In terms of my plans, they’ll require a bit more research.

Who is one of your favourite characters in terms of their role in the book?

 
Analyses Of First Lines #6

January has brought with it an interesting mix of older and new books. One such book is brand new – I received Sofie Laguna’s The Choke a few days ago, to some surprise. Together with the feeling of freshness, the new year has brought with it a renewed enthusiasm for new releases, and while I’m not going to make any promises in regards to this particular book, I will likely read and review it.

There is one book absent from this list that really should be on it as it’s a current read, but the line was dull and I’ve written enough about Eloisa James’ novels recently. It did however bring up an interesting question – when there are sentences before the narrative, such as those that set the scene, when or where exactly does a book begin?

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

When people ask me what I do – taxi drivers, dental hygienists – I tell them I work in an office.

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Like the entirety of the book, if I may be so bold as to bring my general opinion into this post, Honeyman’s first line is a feat of writing, providing not only background detail but personality, mood, and a sense of what will follow. Starting her book with a question put to the narrator by ‘people’, which the content within the dashes shows includes familiars and complete strangers, points to a likelihood of the narrator having a passive role in either his/her life or society in general. The use of ‘taxi drivers, dental hygienists’ implies that the narrator doesn’t have people close to them – we often use ‘people’, but rarely spell out who ‘people’ includes.

And so, with these named categories of people, we can assume that there may be a gap somewhere between this person and society – perhaps they don’t get on with others, or perhaps they’re very introverted. In this vein, the choice of categories is interesting, suggesting the person goes to medical appointments and perhaps nowhere else or very few other places; the taxi takes them to the dentist. They likely do not drive.

Why ‘an office’? Is the job too complex and the narrator became bored with trying to explain it? Are they embarrassed by their job? Or do they perhaps just not want to tell anyone or make conversation?

Elmet by Fiona Mozley

I cast no shadow.

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The character may be a ghost, or perhaps a person who is rarely or never noticed; the sort of opinion given here in first-person echoes a child’s feelings – perhaps their family is dysfunctional. Other options include fantasy-type characters, thieves, or animals.

Looking past the pronoun, we see a situation of either promise of worry. While ‘cast’ can be past tense, it’s quite likely we’re looking at a situation happening at present – someone hiding from something or someone for a reason not yet revealed to us. It’s not the most informative of lines, but it sets the scene well enough.

The Choke by Sofie Laguna

Kirk turned his slingshot over in his hand.

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Continuing on the theme of likely young narrators, Laguna’s first line called to my mind To Kill A Mockingbird – there may not be a slingshot in the opening pages of Lee’s tale, but Laguna’s set up of a child about to be hurt, struck me as similar. Unlike Jem and his sport-related injury, however, here we have either a mischievous child or, more likely given the weapon, the beginnings of a scene of bullying. A bully who is taking his time, either simply drawing it out or about to start some cruel talk. It’s not going to be an easy page to read.

Brick Lane by Monica Ali

An hour and forty-five minutes before Nazneen’s life began – began as it would proceed for quite some time, that is to say uncertainly – her mother Rupban felt an iron fist squeeze her belly.

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This first line sports names that give you an idea as to the possible locations for this book, however, prior to it, the location and date are included under the chapter heading, so we already know we’re in Pakistan, 1967. What the line does provide is a bit of the family culture we’re likely dealing with. Ali’s use of em dashes and the content between them, suggests that Nazneen may be on the ‘hook’ for something for a fair length of her childhood. (We already know Rupban’s labour was an hour and forty five minutes.) We’re looking at the prospect of some of the story dealing with elements of Nazneen’s future life that stem from her birth – perhaps a running joke or constantly retold anecdote she has to hear.

There’s another possible story element hinted at: Nazneen’s strength. The use of ‘iron fist’ could suggest strength of character.

White Truffles In Winter by N M Kelby

That last summer, the kitchen reeked of pickling spice, aniseed and juniper berries.

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Three foods, if we lump ‘spices’ into one for a moment and consider aniseed and juniper in their own right. Just what you want from a book that has food in its title. The use of ‘summer’ here, contrasted with the Winter of the title, suggests that winter may bring with it a big change. And the use of past tense and ‘last’, which is likely about a previous season rather than any finality, suggests winter will indeed be in the spotlight.

Whether or not Kelby means us to see the aniseed and juniper as the two ‘spices’ of the sentence, we have some strong smells and tastes here. I looked up the two together to see if Kelby was meaning us to read more into the combination – there’s a slight possibility of Scandinavia (a salmon dish that uses the two spices, amongst others) or alcohol, though the second is more of a guess. Wherever we are, we’re looking at a licorice-smelling kitchen – something quite a lot different to truffles!

Conclusion

As I started to put these first lines into an order I noticed a similarity; whilst the fact that three lines dealt with the likely subject of childhood, they all also had a potential in them regarding the role of the parent. A child who might be invisible; a child who might be bullied but might be experiencing abuse; a child whose parents may see them in a certain way. It’s interesting how comparisons can be drawn between the most unlikely stories; Elmet and The Choke do appear to be similar, at least in regards to what the blurbs say, but Brick Lane is mostly about an immigrant’s experience. I have a want, almost, to write something about all this, but it would be difficult to find the angle.

I note this ‘finding’ because it relates to something else I’m currently working on, a character study inspired by a conversation about another character, the context of each being vastly different and requiring comment. Similarities can come from the most unlikely of subjects, but sometimes it can be interesting to accept the strangeness, consider it, and continue.

 
Eloisa James – When Beauty Tamed The Beast

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Tale as old as 2011.

Publisher: Avon (HarperCollins)
Pages: 372
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-062-02127-4
First Published: 25th January 2011
Date Reviewed: 13th January 2019
Rating: 3/5

Linnet is ruined; having chosen for a social event a dress that she didn’t notice bulged in a particular area, society now assumes she is pregnant, and not without reason – she’d been flirting with a prince. Now with a non-existent baby on the way, she has to marry fast, but who will have her? The sole option is the Earl of Marchant, an impotent doctor whose father is desperate for a grandchild and obsessed with royalty. But Marchant is known to be a difficult man, and Linnet decides she’ll make him fall for her swiftly and then she’ll try to get over the whole thing.

When Beauty Tamed The Beast is James’ 1700s (or so) romance adaptation of the classic story. The second of a series, it’s a standalone amongst other fairy tale re-tellings.

This book is split roughly 50-50 in terms of adaptation content, where half the time the story falls in line with the rest of James’ work, and the rest of the time is spent conforming to the adaptation enough that it switches between very-loosely-based-on and fairly-faithful retelling. It’s often funny, there are truly silly moments, it’s well-written, and time is spent developing the relationship. Some of the literary devices to create the fairy tale come naturally, such as the old castle, which James’ chosen time period gels with well, but there are a noticeable number of elements and scenes where the classic tale is shoehorned in, such as the hero’s exclamations of “I’m a/the beast!”.

‘Hero’ is open to interpretation here – many will love Piers, who is James’ bookish take on Hugh Laurie’s character, House; others will perhaps take a step back, often. (This reviewer had not seen House M.D. until reaching James’ acknowledgements, but 3 minutes on YouTube was enough to see that Piers and House are one and the same, history aside.) The Hugh Laurie context by itself works very well, and if you read the book with that in mind it may be easier, however with the romance and ‘uninspired’, so to speak, heroine, it may give you pause – Piers is not a great person, and whilst the backing of the fairy tale says a lot, he can go a little too far. Linnet, whilst not a great person to begin with, very quickly falls in beside Piers, so you’ve effectively got two not-great characters but with an added vibe to Piers that can be difficult to read about.

The inclusion of a physical disability, another aspect of House, is well presented in terms of reality, and James tends to balance the pain and upset (and, in this case, in keeping to the tale, anger) with your regular personality. There is a point towards the end where it gets a bit too… inspirational (and the heroine’s plight only adds to this), but that’s at least a short section. More to the point is the penultimate conflict towards the end, the chapters of illness and making the heroine ugly to help inform the balance of the relationship – unnecessary, given the conclusion is hardly going to end on a sad note. It’s also too long.

The best part of the book is the first half – though humour runs throughout, it’s in the first half that the story works well and the literary devices for the sake of the re-telling aren’t hammered home.

However, for all it could have been a bit more original in its re-telling – oxymoron intended – When Beauty Tamed The Beast succeeds in being an enjoyable quick read. Just consider Beauty and Beast to be a mere idea, the library (of this book) bog standard compared to Disney’s 1991 version, and replace ‘Tamed’ with ‘Gamed’ for a better fit.

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