Friday, 2 March 2018

BOOK CLUB: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant has a routine. She travels to work by bus, keeps her head down in her accountancy job, eats the same meal deal alone in the staffroom while doing the crossword and doesn’t talk to anyone from Friday night (when she buys two bottles of vodka to get her through the weekend) till Monday morning.

She’s built a bubble around herself and avoids contact with other people while at the same time being desperately lonely. Then an incident in the street draws her reluctantly into the lives of strangers.

Here Gillian Hamer (GH) and JJ Marsh (JJ) discuss their thoughts on the book.

How did you react to the character of Eleanor?

(GH)   I think I went through a wide range of feelings and there were tears as well as laughter. At first I found her awkwardness funny, then quirky, then endearing, then sympathetic and finally understanding. It wasn't long before I found I could second guess things from her perspective which meant the author had achieved what she set out to do and connected the reader with her character.

(JJ) I'd agree with that. You find yourself 'becoming' Eleanor, but not without a huge amount of wincing on the way. I read something in the news this week that one of the factors used to measure human happiness is one's connection to your community. Real interactions, on the surface meaningless, reinforce that you are part of something. By around the middle of the book, I was struck by how much has been written about various human social disorders, but so little about the simple fact of being lonely.

The perspective is tightly contained within Eleanor’s point-of-view of the world, allowing the reader both insights and distance. How well do you feel that worked? 

(JJ) The clash between the reader's understanding of social morés and Eleanor's is where the laughter, awkwardness and self-awareness happens in this book. When she asks Raymond for the money for his Guinness stopped me in my tracks. It's like being a foreigner in a culture you just don't understand. The other area I felt worked well was her obsession with the musician. She allows the reader droplets of information which we can decode, but Eleanor cannot. I came out of this book feeling slightly ashamed of myself and determined to make fewer assumptions.

(GH)  Really well and from a writer's perspective it can't have been easy to achieve. Like I said, I quickly saw through Eleanor's eyes and judged the world as she did. Her distaste at poor hygiene or text speak became natural as that is what we came to expect; her reliance on alcohol and the normality of this to her told us so much with about her inner pain without having to explain. But we were also given a glimpse at how the outside world viewed Eleanor through things like interaction (or lack of) with her work colleagues and her sessions with her counsellor which finally opened her up to the real world. In terms of distance, there is a clever balance. Societies' general contempt for mental health issues come under the spotlight here, and it can make for uncomfortable reading which is no bad thing.

Due to her profound isolation from the world, her encounters with the general public range from hilarious to cringeworthy. Which moments stand out for you?

(GH)  Oh there were some laugh aloud moments. One that had me in giggles was the description of Eleanor's first introduction to dancing the YMCA. There was no telling - all showing - and it was hilarious. Another was her first visit to a beauty salon and her first bikini wax - I think you can most likely fill in the gaps there. A cringeworthy moment was when she began to attend parties with Raymond and realised from a previous faux-pas that it's polite to take gifts even when the host says not to - so took what she thought would be most useful - a packet of cheese slices and half a bottle of vodka. As ridiculous as that would sound to anyone who hasn't read the book, to those of us who know Eleanor it's completely understandable.

(JJ) The bikini wax had me in fits too. As did the discussion of a suitable drink with the barman. But I found her interactions with the owner of the corner shop quite touching. Most of all, I found her snobbish judgementalism - the root of which we grow to appreciate - so entertaining. "I often find those most likely to wear sports clothing are those least likely to practise it." She's not quite the 'idiot savant', but her observations veer close to the bone.

Eleanor may be the central focus but many of the minor characters played key roles. Which of the supporting cast did you love or hate?

(GH) Raymond and his mother stood out for me. His mother in particular seemed to touch Eleanor in a way that confused her to begin with but then opened her up to most of the journey that followed. Such a simple gesture as making a cup of tea, and not having to ask how she took it, showed a caring side of motherhood that Eleanor had never experienced. Raymond was a perfect friend for Eleanor. His character came through right from their initial encounter with the elderly Sammy and his accident in the street. Raymond came along at a time in Eleanor's life when loneliness was finally having a profound effect on her even though she had spent so many years telling herself and everyone else that she was 'completely fine.' The way Raymond handled Eleanor through her meltdown was testament to his character. He bought her flowers for the first time in her life, he did her laundry, got her shopping in - all things that no one had ever done for her before.

As a complete antithesis, if there was ever a character worth hating in a novel, it was Eleanor's birth mother. Even without knowing the real depths of her depravity for most of the book, by the time we came to the big reveal we already detested her with a passion. It was testament to Eleanor that she had survived to see her thirtieth birthday - not just physically but mentally too. This was a woman who had no business terming herself as a mother to anyone and how she manipulated and terrified Eleanor from afar was awful to read.

(JJ)  Oh her mother was a monster all right. But part of me felt Eleanor's relationship with her was something like 'better the devil you know'. Her own willingness to accept that bullying behaviour spoke volumes about her not being anywhere near 'completely fine'.
The takedown of the musician really entertained me - hung by his own petard, or in this case, his own Tweets.
Whereas her boss, Sammy and his family, Raymond and his mum showed all those little kindnesses that allowed Eleanor to develop the smallest of bonds. I found the scene in the hairdresser quite emotional.
One other moment that struck me was when as a child, she went to a friend's house for tea. Served classic 'kid food', she is appalled. The friend's mother asks what they normally have for tea, to which she rattles off an absurd list of pretentious delicacies. My heart broke for her. Through no fault of her own, she has become insufferable.

The contemporary story is woven through with revelations about Eleanor’s past, building to a climatic end. Did it come as a shock or had you guessed? 

(JJ)  The clues had pretty much spelt it out for me so there was an odd mixture of vindication and horror at realising what had happened. Somehow, the reader comes to terms with the past at the same time as Eleanor. We have to face those formative events with her in order to see a future.

(GH)  Without giving away the ending, I had mostly guessed where the story of Eleanor's past was leading us. I guessed there was a sibling involved but hadn't expected the final twist. It was like the missing piece of a jigsaw for me and suddenly everything made sense.

What was your take on the pace of Eleanor’s development?

(GH)   I think it was pretty dramatic considering she'd spent twenty years in some kind of self-imposed stagnation. But it was getting a taste of life and love - Sammy's family, her work promotion, meeting Raymond and her feelings for the musician - that combined and speeded up her development. But then the author cleverly chose to start the story at a point in her life when Eleanor was desperate for change - whether she'd acknowledged that herself or not.

(JJ) Pace was the one thing about this book I didn't enjoy. For me, there was a circularity of hints and allusions to the past which began to drag. Whereas the steady luring of Eleanor for her solitary life moved as slowly as it must. Gilly, you're right in saying she was ready for a change, but I was a wee bit frustrated that it took so long to draw back the curtain after so many clues.

The novel is Honeyman’s debut and Reese Witherspoon has bought the film rights. How do you think the book will transfer to screen?

(GH)  I am not totally sure and do have reservations. I guess it will depend on the skill of the director and producer. As so much is seen internally from Eleanor's perspective, I feel it will be a hard task to get the viewer onside as easily as the reader. But Hollywood clearly sees potential so let's hope they do the book justice.

(JJ) Well, it's all going to depend on who they cast as Eleanor. Her personality is what drives this book and no matter how anti-social or misfit her behaviour, the viewers needs to be on her side. The readers have long since been lured in. I think if they don't add too much syrup, this could be a very enjoyable movie.

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