Eleanor Oliphant

A woman on the verge

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Eleanor Oliphant is 29 years old, awkward, distant and prone to blurting out exactly what’s on her mind. She trudges through life, dutifully showing up for work then heading home each day, alone. Her weekends are ordered and completely solitary. But, as she keeps repeating to herself, she’s completely fine.

In Scottish author Gail Honeyman’s bestselling 2017 novel, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, the title character comes across as an odd duck, a quirky, melancholy character much like Ove in Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove. She’s not as prickly as Olive Kitteridge (if you haven’t read Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel or seen the HBO miniseries starring Frances McDormand as Olive, do it now!) but she is uniquely herself. She’s profoundly literal, she’s frugal, and she sticks to routines. Pesto pasta for dinner every night except Friday, when she treats herself to a frozen pizza washed down with a gallon of vodka.

Little by little we learn what has made Eleanor, Eleanor. She suffers weekly calls from Mummy in which Mummy verbally berates her. We find out she lived in foster care for most of her childhood. There’s something tragic about her past, something that nobody at her accounting office would ever suspect.

One day Eleanor glimpses a potential love interest and embarks on some self-improvement (haircut, new clothes, even a little makeup to hide the scars she has on her face). She desperately wants to make a connection and break free of her loneliness. But though Eleanor’s plans do not proceed apace, a chance encounter with a kind but schlubby coworker named Raymond introduces some companionship into her life, and some purpose, when the two rescue an elderly man who has fallen in the street.

This novel is an interesting mix of charming and serious, gentle and sad. It’s also ultimately hopeful, as Eleanor confronts her demons and builds friendships with people who accept her for who she is.

One can imagine her at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, with social distancing not having much impact on her daily routine. But with Stay at Home measures in place, life for Eleanor might easily have turned decidedly not fine—a never-ending blur of vodka and nightmarish hallucinations from her past.

Reading about Eleanor reminds me to think about all the Eleanors out there who may need some kindness in their lives, and some human interaction despite the current restrictions. There are people that, even before coronavirus, were feeling very lonely and disconnected.

Books can be as solace, a way for people to know they are not alone, but they’re not the only answer. Each one of us must do whatever we can to spread kindness however we can. Then we’ll all be fine.

Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System (WCLS). WCLS brings the power of sharing to Whatcom County. She hopes that everyone in Whatcom County is completely fine, and that they know they can access a wealth of resources at http://www.wcls.org/info. For those who don’t have access to the internet or would like to speak to library staff one-on-one, WCLS is open for phone calls at (360) 305-3600 or by calling a WCLS branch directly.

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