Content Note: Discussion of mental health, depression, loneliness, childhood trauma
In 2017, Gail Honeyman released her debut novel, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, which quickly rose to fame due to her expert craftsmanship of a complex story and interesting yet relatable characters. The book doesn’t centre on people who have magical powers, are inexplicably rich or are amazing supernatural teenagers. Instead, Honeyman features the wonders of the ordinary – Eleanor Oliphant is your typical middle-aged woman.
Except for the fact that she is not completely fine.
The plot weaves together unfettered emotional loyalty, the realistic mundanity of an office job, the fascination with the famous and of course, the themes of a woman dealing with mental illness.
Nothing about Eleanor Oliphant’s life initially seems extraordinary or sticks out in a way to mark her as different. But when she sees a picture of a man in a magazine, she falls madly and deeply in love with him. It becomes an obsession, and we witness her life begin to revolve around him completely. Her everyday habits are re-evaluated, she creates a Twitter account to follow his every tweet, all his obviously immature behaviours are ignored for favour of more angelic features. She even deigns to get her first ever bikini wax, even though she has no idea what she’s doing and yells at the assistant for trying to make her seem prepubescent. Throughout all this, still nothing makes Eleanor different. Except her age. Society would often have us believe that someone in their late twenties to early thirties should have grown out of such ‘teenage’ obsessive behaviour, but Honeyman dispels that rumour. No matter the age of a person, the dangers of this deep infatuation are made clear, when they eventually lead to Eleanor’s breakdown.
The very title of the book is the beginning of our journey to normalising mental health issues. Firstly, it captures the distinct phrase of those struggling to constantly deny their pain until they crack and it’s no longer possible to keep saying that things are ‘fine’. Secondly, it challenges that notion that Eleanor Oliphant’s mental health issues make her somehow ‘other’ from the rest of society. Eleanor is not defined by her struggles with mental illness, nor is there any emphasis put on trying to diagnose her. On the face of it, she is an average person in the world, leading an average life, eating Tesco-bought pizza and drinking vodka every week. But she also happens to be in deep pain that she is suppressing. By making her protagonist’s mental health condition deliberately anonymous, Honeyman once again allows Eleanor to be more relatable to the public at large: she could be anyone who has struggled with trauma in their lives and not been able to address it.
Throughout the novel, Honeyman uses an accessible writing style to cover topics as diverse as loneliness, social rejection, conventional beauty standards, friendship and mental health, without ever developing implausible plot lines or distancing the reader from the world she has created. As we see Eleanor Oliphant struggle with her appearance and her attempts to change herself, we swiftly see that this was not the key to her journey to self love. Whilst we are rooting for her as the main character, we are also made painfully aware of the toxic outcome that accompanies the attempt to live your life for somebody else. Honeyman shows the equilibrium between experimenting with your appearance enough to find your individual style and becoming comfortable with yourself as a person. The development that Eleanor goes through doesn’t idealise changing your outer appearance to accept yourself, rather it encourages self-exploration and change, whilst staying true to who you are in the course of said self-discovery. Ultimately, it is friendship and the support of others in society that is able to lift Eleanor to greater heights.
Overall, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is a step towards normalising the struggles of everyday life, whether they be for reasons of social integration, beauty standards, mental health, or for Eleanor, all the above. The key message of the book is clear; human interaction and acceptance can be the difference between life and death. We need a community of people to thrive.
Book content Note: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine contains discussion of mental health problems, loneliness, domestic abuse, trauma and attempted suicide
If you are struggling with your mental health, check out Find Support Cam – an online guide to finding mental health support in Cambridge.