Exploring Mental Health in Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

“If someone asks you how you are, you are meant to say FINE. You are not meant to say that you cried yourself to sleep last night because you hadn’t spoken to another person for two consecutive days. FINE is what you say.”

Gail Honeyman, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Eleanor Oliphant is adamantly unchanging in every aspect of her life. She lives alone, follows the same weekly schedule, and eats the same foods that she knows she likes. Eleanor has worked at the same company as a finance clerk for years. By her own assessment, she is not a particularly beautiful woman. She has a big scar on her face and she never puts much thought in appearances, often wearing the same drab clothes. Told from the first-person perspective, Eleanor’s unflinching weekly routine is illuminated by the narrator’s funny perspective and quirky personality. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman shows what can happen if mental health issues are not addressed and stresses the value of community in overcoming our personal demons. *Note: In this review I am analyzing Eleanor’s character, and, in doing so, I reveal some spoilers. Read with caution*

The novel opens as Eleanor’s humdrum life begins to change unexpectedly. Eleanor falls in love with a local singer named Johnnie though she has never officially met him before. The possibility of meeting him in the future sparks a fire in Eleanor. She begins to invest time and money to cultivating a new Eleanor that she thinks Johnnie can fall in love with. It is around this time that Eleanor becomes acquainted with her coworker, Raymond. Although she finds him uncouth and slobbish, she grows fond of him. Through Raymond, Eleanor meets and befriends more people. As Eleanor continues on this journey to better herself, she must come to terms with her emotions and the past that she has been unknowingly hiding from. While Eleanor makes a compelling narrator, the readers can quickly pick up on the dark undercurrent of the story. Her coworkers occasionally speak to her in the office, but they never have anything particularly nice to say. Her mother is verbally abusive to her, yet Eleanor cannot seem to escape her mother’s influence. Eleanor fantasizes over a man that she only knows from seeing him perform and finding him on social media. Additionally, Eleanor struggles with negative feelings and severe alcohol problems.

Mental health plays a big role in Eleanor’s characterization, and the bleak reality is softened by her quirky and fun personality. Although she is undiagnosed, I feel that there is a good chance that the author was creating a character with Borderline Personality Disorder or another mental health disorder (Note: I am not a psychologist, so take this diagnosis with a grain of salt). Eleanor lacks basic social skills, and she lacks empathy. She does not understand that honesty is not always the best policy if it means that you are hurting the feelings of others. As she says in one excerpt, “I don’t want to accept a drink from you, because then I would be obliged to purchase one for you in return, and I’m afraid I’m simply not interested in spending two drinks’ worth of time with you”. Most people she interacts with are discomfited by this unapologetic frankness. In addition, I think her idolization of the singer, Johnnie Lomond, can also be attributed to BPD; She has not had any meaningful conversations with him, yet she truly believes he is her soulmate. She places her hopes for a better future on the possibility of their future relationship.

In addition to what I have interpreted as BPD, Eleanor obviously struggles with depression, severe loneliness, alcoholism, suicidal thoughts, and more. Because she struggles to interact with others in a healthy way, Eleanor retracts from the society that was never welcoming to her. When she leaves work on Friday afternoon, she often does not speak to another individual until she walks back through the front doors of her office on Monday morning. Unfortunately, Eleanor does not think anyone wants to hear about her struggles, so, rather than address her negative emotions, she bottles everything. As she says herself, “These days, loneliness is the new cancer–-a shameful, embarrassing thing, brought upon yourself in some obscure way. A fearful, incurable thing, so horrifying that you dare not mention it; other people don’t want to hear the word spoken aloud for fear that they might too be afflicted, or that it might tempt fate into visiting a similar horror upon them”. Eleanor’s mental health was perhaps first influenced by her traumatic childhood which is only talked about peripherally for a majority of the book; however, the reason her depression escalates is because she desperately tries to mask her feelings rather than address them. For a book that is so funny, there are some gut-punch quotes that demonstrate how people like Eleanor often suffer in silence.

Overall, Eleanor Oliphant was an immensely enjoyable, easy reading experience. It may have been one of my favorite books that I’ve read this year. Lately, I have been recommending Eleanor to anyone that asks me for a book recommendation. I would specifically recommend this book to individuals that want to invest more time into reading but struggle to get hooked on a story. You will enjoy Eleanor Oliphant if you like books such as A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman or Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple. Living in Eleanor’s thoughts was engrossing from the first page to the last. Gail Honeyman writes a story that is at once funny and heart-wrenching. Funny books can be really hard to come by, yet I found myself laughing out loud while reading this book. In a world where there is so much sadness and uncertainty, laughter is truly the best medicine.

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