polite independence | 2019.11.02

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman | Review

Honeyman, Gail_Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Original Publication: New York, New York : Pamela Dorman Books/Viking, [2017]

Genre: Fiction

Pages: 327

Formats: Hardcover, Paperback, Audiobook

Support Your Authors: Book for Purchase | Support Your Local Library: MCL

What is the definition of polite social behavior? Does it mean you don’t ever bother anyone with your troubles or your individual needs? And does this predicate the definition of loneliness, as the title page’s quote from Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone seems to indicate? Implications of “normal” raced through my mind as I read Honeyman’s book.

A good friend recently loaned me her copy of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. She later told me that she had wanted me to read it because she saw a lot of similarities between the main character and how I handle my day-to-day interactions with people. (Well, golly gee . . . thanks!?) After giving the book a try, Reese Witherspoon’s book club sticker on the front cover aside, I suppose I can sort of see what my friend meant.

Yes, I’m not shy about asking what most people consider to be tough and sometimes annoying questions of “why, why, why” because I struggle to understand how “normal” people function. Okay, fine, I don’t seek out personal help very often because I think of myself generally as being, like Ms. Oliphant, completely fine. And if I’m being completely honest, social interactions and all the connotations they usually involve baffle me on a regular basis. But is this, as the book seems to imply, a recipe for loneliness? And is it really that abnormal? (Notice how many goddamn questions I’ve already racked up and we’ve hardly gotten started on this review.)

When I was a teenager, my favorite movie (hold your judgment please) was without a doubt While You Were Sleeping. But, it wasn’t until all-too-recently that I realized the why behind my love of watching Sandra Bullock’s character and her cat in her lonely apartment in the city was predicated on a deeply held desire for untethered independence. However, the movie’s message, which was lost on me in my adolescence, is that this young woman needed a family and a husband (a community, really) to pull her back from the brink of being completely and forever alone in this universe. But the aloneness of Lucy’s character was truly the best part, in my estimation.

Reading Honeyman’s book, my emotions ran a similar gauntlet, as I cheered for Ms. Oliphant’s fierce, immovable schedule of complete independence (the two bottles of vodka every weekend withstanding). Sure, the relationships that she ends up building are sweet-as, and they help her to recognize her repressed depression that was blanketing her ability to process fully the trauma of her childhood.

That’s all lovely and well and good. Having a community is essential, I’ve come to realize, because the view from inside oneself is always going to be restrictive. But I also loved the way Honeyman’s book didn’t let itself fall prey to the age-old adage that the lonely little woman needs a husband, a lover, or a provider to save her from herself. Oliphant is allowed to keep her own independent personality in the midst of the growth her character experiences. I’m glad society is creating room for the individual and independent Oliphants in this world. It’s okay to be quirky, especially if that’s the most honest version of oneself.

So, bring on the lonely city apartment with the cat and the independent schedule of pasta and salad, the occasional frozen pizza, and a now-and-then outing with a friend to help give perspective and to feel the benefits of now-and-then solidarity. But let’s also say it’s okay to keep it at that, shall we?

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