Fine is what we say when someone asks how we are. Fine says just enough and nothing at all. Debut novelist Gail Honeyman introduces a character who is quirky, possibly delusional, and absolutely, positively, not fine. Honeyman’s light touch makes readers laugh while exploring the natures of empathy and love and the meaning of being human.
Eleanor Oliphant is a woman of routine. She works in the office of a graphic design company, eats lunch alone, and always does the crossword in the “Daily Telegraph.” On Fridays she stops by the Tesco Metro on her way home from work where she picks up a margherita pizza, Chianti, and two bottles of vodka. Sometimes she doesn’t speak to anyone from the time she enters her apartment on Friday and steps back into the office on Monday. The only deviation in this schedule is the Wednesday night phone calls with Mummy.
When we meet Eleanor she has just begun contemplating radically changing her life; she has met the love of her life (hence a trip to the beauty salon for a her first ever bikini wax, and the purchase of both a computer and smartphone to make connecting and kindling convenient and private). Eleanor’s social media habits are hysterical, disturbing, and all-too familiar. Honeyman touches on the ways which social media so easily (and frequently) guises distance as connection.
Eleanor is finally forced to do more than contemplate change while checking the musician’s status updates when she and her coworker, Raymond (a computer technician with a serious nicotine habit and the style and hygiene of an overgrown teenager), save the life of an elderly gentleman who collapses on the street. Once she opens the door to change Eleanor slowly faces the reasons for her deep, habitual resistance to experiencing life.
Eleanor has known pain, ridicule, loneliness, and indifference. Eleanor is also not necessarily easy to like. She is socially awkward, she will say whatever comes into her head, and has no ability to code-switch or to assess the context of a social situation. She is also on the defensive much of the time. Plus she may look a little, well, different. She wears blue velcro sneakers, always carries a shopper with her (easily converted into a rolling cart when needed), and wears a jerkin. She also carries another, hidden, Hallmark of childhood trauma, and her oddness gifts her with pity rather than empathy.
Too often her coworkers, neighbors, and the handful of people she interacts with regularly see her with more pity than empathy. They don’t relate to her, see anything of themselves in her or vice versa, or what they do see is too painful to really look at, to really try to understand. Eleanor’s lonely adulthood speaks to a need to be open to change, but also comments on the state of empathy in our nation. Too often our focus is intrinsically inward, our ability to put ourselves in another person’s shoes compromised by shortsightedness, stubbornness, and a need to confirm only what is already known to be true about the world that is not us.
Now, more than ever before, is the time to join together to battle isms and phobias of every type—racism and sexism and homophobia and xenophobia. Only together can we stand against oppression, bigotry, and totalitarianism, and only by reaching out, by feeling true empathy for each other, can we successfully fight hatred in all forms.
Honeyman delivers a book that is smart, funny, and germane in a world so focused on appearance and differences. She also throws in a few surprises and twists, making a book that is simultaneously suspenseful, funny, and thought-provoking. Readers of “A Man Called Ove,” by Peter Backman, “Out of My Mind,” by Sharon Draper, and “The Rosie Project” will love this very Scottish story of coming-of-age mid-life.