Eleanor Oliphant is not fine – this book is dangerously irresponsible

WHEN I began reading Gail Honeyman’s debut novel, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, I knew little about it except that the author was Scottish. After the first few dozen pages I was confused – was I missing something?

I wasn’t.

By the end I was horrified. And that was before I learned it was a global bestseller, with the film rights secured by Reese Witherspoon’s production company.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is not just a bad novel – it’s a harmful one.

SPOILER ALERT: The paragraphs below reveal details about the novel’s plot and central character that are gradually revealed in early chapters, but none of the “big reveals” that would constitute significant spoilers.

Honeyman’s central character, Eleanor, is an object of ridicule. Not just for the majority of the novel’s other characters but also for the reader, who is invited to chuckle at her many eccentricities even as it is quickly revealed that they are the product of childhood trauma.

Eleanor spent half of her children in care, following an “incident” that she never talks about, or even – as we learn from the first-person narrative – allows herself to think about. Clues about the grim events of past are peppered throughout the many short chapters in a manner that reminded me of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life (more on which later).

The biggest problem with the book as a work of literature is that there is barely a scene in it that rings true. As a character, Eleanor is utterly implausible, a crude caricature. Does she have autistic spectrum disorder? Post-traumatic stress disorder? Some kind of dissociative disorder? It’s barely worth speculating, as she is nothing but a figment of the author’s imagination. No-one like her exists in the real world. And as such, the book has nothing whatsoever of value to say.

So far, so what? It’s a bad debut novel that’s found an audience and entertained them. Nothing so very unusual there, and no harm done.

But the reason it matters is that this is a book about a character who is part of one of the most marginalised and misunderstood populations in society – care-experienced young people. She is a young woman who has experienced childhood trauma, and moved around foster placements, and struggled to form relationships.

The average person doesn’t know a great deal about the care system. Neither, is seems, does Gail Honeyman, who has nonetheless written a novel about a care-experienced character who at the outset has no friends, no social skills and a ludicrously limited understanding of the world she has inhabited for 30 years. The novel is sent in contemporary Glasgow, yet the author seems to have no interest in getting very basic facts right. She perpetuates a number of harmful myths about social services, including that workers conceal vital information from foster carers, that young people are not included in decision-making about their lives, and that trauma-experienced social work clients (whether adults or children) receive no meaningful support whatsoever.

Yes, this is a work of fiction, and the author will doubtless claim creative licence, but to what end has she used this licence? The net harm caused by the perpetuation of the above myths – myths that affect the life chances, health and wellbeing of real, live young people – can scarcely be said to be worth it because of the merits of the literature produced. It’s a page-turner, but it’s a worthless book.

Which brings me back to A Little Life, a novel that’s entirely different in tone to Eleanor Oliphant…, but similarly centres around a character against whom the odds have been firmly stacked since an early age. After finishing the book – which begins as a saga about four friends but descends into a gruelling fictionalised misery memoir – I read some interviews with the author and was shocked to discover she had carried out no research. She had simply made up a character and subjected him to an implausible catalogue of horrific events, then teased with the details for 700-odd pages.

Of course, readers will always be drawn to dark topics, and no subject matter should be off-limits for those writing fiction. But is it too much to ask that novels don’t fuel stigma surrounding and misunderstanding about the most vulnerable people in society?

By the end of Honeyman’s novel, Eleanor’s story is no longer being played purely for laughs. But that’s small consolation.

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11 comments

  1. I completely disagree. I actually identified with the character. This grotesque totally unbelievable caricature is startlingly similar to me and the character’s mother is very like mine too. I speak and think like Eleanor.
    We are not meant to laugh at Eleanor: she makes observations about the so called normal people around her which shows that what is considered normal is actually pretty absurd.

    I don’t see that the author is promoting harmful myths: there are actually quite a few of us out there who lead lives with limited social skills and no friends. What I find more stigmatising is Shona thinking that such people are too freakish to possibly really exist. Well, we do. Check under your bed every night, folks! Lonely, eccentric people might be lurking anywhere. In fact, Shona’s stance is disgustingly ableist in its inability to allow such neurodivergence to be part of the real world landscape.

    Victims of abuse do get failed and we do get left to get on with things. I cried reading Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine because it could have been, with a few tweaks, my autobiography. But I suppose now I should be ashamed for being DANGEROUSLY IRRESPONSIBLE by my mere existence.

    This was a fantastic, compassionate book which brings home to the reader the reality of loneliness and the beauty of friendship.

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    • Many thanks for your comment Emma – your perspective is very interesting. Certainly others I’ve spoken to found Eleanor funny, albeit they empathised more with her as the book went on. One friend thought the “message” was that you shouldn’t laugh at eccentric people because you don’t know what they are going through. For me this is the kind of message a children’s book might have – not one for adults. Any half-way empathetic adult should try to be compassionate towards those who are different.

      I don’t doubt at all that there are many people who have character traits in common with Eleanor, but I simply didn’t believe in the extent of her naivety about the world, which felt exaggerated for comedy value. What I found particularly distasteful was the way the author drip-fed information about Eleanor’s past and then ultimately revealed she’d been in care, as if this was supposed to explain everything. I think authors have a responsibility to get at least basic facts right when talking about this marginalised group.

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  2. As an autistic person and survivor of abuse I found Eleanor’s character eerily relatable. I was taken aback at how much. People used to say I was naive and weird too. I didn’t understand or care for social norms. This was partly due to my neurotype but also abuse changes you it makes you turn inward and away from the world so you end up missing out on a lot. I’ve never been in state care though so I can accept that that part of the story might be less than accurate. However, there’s plenty of people out there like Eleanor.

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  3. Terrible review. COMPLETELY missed the point and spirit of the book. By traditional standards I’m considered a”normal” person and I found Eleanor extremely believable and her story all too common. She moved me to look at the way I view people, things as well as situations. I found the book moving and very emotional. I think this Shona person should read the book again with fresh eyes, remove their own biases and viewpoints and accept Eleanor as she is.

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    • Thanks very much for your comment. I’m really interested to know what you think the point/spirit of the book is meant to be. I think it’s a stretch to say that Eleanor’s specific situation is all too common – as I’ve detailed above, several aspects are just not at all plausible given the book is set in contemporary Scotland. I certainly won’t be reading it again, as the ill-informed portrayal of mental illness in particularly would be even more jarring now that I know the “twist”.

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  4. Probably going to post this twice as having difficulty with the log in. I finally read this months after everyone else. I enjoyed the opening chapters and Eleanor’s critical take on the world. She seems to take real pleasure in her meal deals, her crosswords, and the tasks at her work. There’s a Barbara Pym character not far away. But then an Ann Tyler sentimentalism arrives, along with a modern misery memoir, with no attempt at addressing how that kind of trauma would really affect a person – in real life, it leads to the streets, not a classics degree. Instead of trauma, she does a simple switch and gives her character ASD traits.

    The makeover theme is really childlike. Her ability to resolve the situation with the abusive partner – and her alcoholism- just like that! being in young adult fiction, not literature.

    The “be a bit kinder” message… Raymond and his dream-like mother along with the dream-like Sammy… Actually it’s really hard to sustain a relationship with a person as deeply traumatised as Eleanor. They don’t perk up as soon as they get a good haircut. They don’t get promotions when they have difficulty working with others and are bullied at work.

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