Many readers are familiar with the feeling of being so completely absorbed in a story or a character’s life that they do not want a book to end. I had just such a feeling about Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine; yet, I also wanted to finish the story unraveling Eleanor’s past in order to understand her current situation. People provides readers with this insight into Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine with this explanation: “This wacky, charming novel…draws you in with humor, then turns out to contain both a suspenseful subplot and a sweet romance…. Hilarious and moving.”
When we meet Eleanor, she has completed her university degree and is working in “an office. In almost nine years, no one’s ever asked what kind of office, or what sort of job I do there.” In truth, the firm is a small graphic design company where Eleanor works in accounts. She has a regular routine, bringing her lunch from home, eating in the office lunchroom, working her crosswords in the Daily Telegraph. She does not interact with anyone else in the office during lunch, or often during the rest of the day.
Eleanor is solitary and pays little attention to others around her. Generally, she finds them shallow, unmannerly, and uninteresting. Her weekends also are also spent in a routine. On Fridays on her way home from the office, she buys “a margherita pizza, some Chianti and two big bottles of Glen’s vodka.” She drinks the wine with the pizza and then drinks the two bottles of Glen’s over the rest of the weekend so that “spread throughout both days I am neither drunk nor sober. Monday takes a long time to come around.”
That early description in the book sets the stage for Eleanor’s dreary, repetitious life: daily work and semi-drunken weekends to ward off loneliness and nightmares. She ponders the question of her own existence. She even thinks she may be “a figment of my own imagination.” Eleanor is a faithful employee, consistently doing a good job, never missing a day, and rarely taking even all the vacation allotted to her. She knows she is the butt of her fellow employees’ jokes, but Eleanor prefers to ignore their jokes and pretend they do not exist even though they are all in an open office.
Eleanor reminds me of someone with Asperger’s Syndrome. She answers honestly and directly when questioned. She also had difficulty understanding why others must be rude and disrespectful. Eleanor’s life might have gone on for many years in that same routine pattern of working every day, eating lunch alone, going home alone, and spending weekends in a semi-drunken stupor, but for a chance encounter at work.
After entering a charity raffle, Eleanor has won two tickets to a concert. She asks Billy from the office to accompany her to the concert “mainly because he was the youngest person in the office; for that reason, I assumed he’d enjoy the music.” At the concert, Eleanor is struck when the singer walks onto the stage. In Eleanor’s eyes, “he blazed. Everything he came into contact with would be changed. I sat forward on my seat, edged closer. At last, I’ve found him.”
Eleanor decides the singer who turns out to be Johnny Lomond, a handsome man. Eleanor builds quite a life for the two of them in her head because she is certain they are destined to meet, fall in love, and marry. To that end, she decides to reinvent herself. Readers are recognizing at this point that Eleanor has a distorted view of falling in love and living happily ever after. Still, she systematically sets about her task of reinvention and of meeting Johnny Lomond.
When Eleanor tries to log into her computer one morning, her password does not work. After several tries, she calls IT and finds that a new person has taken over IT: Raymond Gibbons. When Eleanor calls Raymond’s number, she is appalled at the message on his extension: “Hi, Raymond here, but also not here. Like Schrodinger’s cat. Leave a message after the beep. Cheers!” Despite her dismay at his message, she leaves this message for Raymond: “Good morning, Mr. Gibbons. My name is Miss Oliphant and I am the finance clerk. My computer has stopped working and I would be most grateful if you could see your way to repairing it today.”
Readers can see that Eleanor demonstrates the proper way to leave a voice mail even if the recorded message on the recipient’s voice mail is less than stellar. Raymond finally gets to Eleanor’s desk and clears up the virus that has attacked her computer and resets the firewall to protect her against further attack. Eleanor is not impressed with Raymond; his dress is sloppy and he “loped off with a strange bouncy walk, springing too hard on the balls of his feet.” He also wears trainers, not proper shoes!
To learn more about Lomond, Eleanor buys a laptop and mobile Internet access on Friday on her way home. She wants to research to discover as much as she can about her future husband. She discovers his Twitter account and follows him. She also learns about Instagram and looks at the photos he has posted. At this point, we start learning about Mummy. Mummy is in Eleanor’s head, but we discover that Mummy phones Eleanor every Wednesday evening. The conversations begin well, but Mummy always ends with some kind of jab at Eleanor and then hangs up the phone, leaving Eleanor with no opportunity to respond.
One Friday, soon after Raymond clears up the computer virus, Eleanor and Raymond are at an engagement party for a fellow employee. Eleanor stays only long enough to be polite. She wants to be off home to buy her pizza, wine, and Glen’s and so she can continue her research into Johnny Lomond. Unfortunately, Raymond is leaving the engagement party at the same time, so they walk out together much to Eleanor’s chagrin.
As Raymond and Eleanor continue down the sidewalk, they see an elderly man stumble and fall, dropping his shopping bags and continuing to lie without moving. At first, Eleanor and Raymond think the man is drunk. Then they discover he has a gash on his head. Raymond calls 999 to ask for an ambulance. When it arrives, Raymond goes with the man in the ambulance while Eleanor takes up the man’s shopping and takes it to her apartment. She agrees to meet Raymond at the hospital later and to take the shopping then.
This chance encounter with the elderly man will change Eleanor’s life completely, although not all at once. The man is Sammy Thom, a man in his early seventies. Eleanor and Raymond visit Sammy in the hospital. Sammy is grateful to them for caring about him and seeing that he received care. Eleanor and Raymond meet Sammy’s adult children, two sons and Laura, a hair stylist. After Sammy leaves the hospital, his children host a coming home party and invite Raymond and Eleanor. These visits with Sammy continue to throw Raymond and Eleanor together, but readers should not expect a romance to blossom right away. Eleanor is still determined to meet Johnny Lomond, her Mr. Right.
Still, slowly, ever so slowly, Eleanor’s routine begins to change. She now meets Raymond once a week for lunch at a café near their office; they are becoming friends, a new experience for Eleanor. At first, Eleanor is reluctant to eat at the café, but finally she orders a coffee and a cheese scone and discovers the scone is delicious. She learns how to converse with Raymond, even if the conversations are somewhat stiff at times. Raymond invites Eleanor to go with him to visit his mom. Eleanor finds that she has a lovely time meeting Raymond’s mom and having tea in her home.
As readers might expect, Eleanor soon learns that her fantasy of falling in love with Johnny and of his loving her in return turns out to be just that, a fantasy. She discovers he is a rude, vulgar man and immediately drops all her dreams of meeting him. She realizes she has been foolish and feels embarrassed.
The telephone calls with Mummy continue to be problematic. If Eleanor is not at home on a Wednesday evening to take Mummy’s call, Mummy is very angry. Though the course of the story, readers learn bits and pieces about Eleanor; she is alone in the world. She has been in foster care and group homes. She still receives visits from social workers.
Eleanor has been stockpiling pills for some time; she plans to kill herself. When she does not show up for work for four days, a real rarity for Eleanor, Raymond finds her address through HR and knocks on the door until Eleanor groggily drags herself to the door. Raymond comes into an apartment full of empty Glen’s vodka bottles, Eleanor’s vomit, and an array of tools for suicide: “Painkillers (twelve packets of twenty-four tablets, prescribed and carefully hoarded); bread knife (hardly used, shark’s teeth ready to bite); drain cleaner (“cuts through all blockages, even hair and grease” –also flesh and internal organs.”
Raymond cleans up Eleanor’s bedroom first, putting clean, fresh sheets on the bed. Then he puts Eleanor gently into the bed under the covers and she promptly falls asleep. He cleans up the rest of the apartment, flushing the pills down the drain. He makes soup for Eleanor and persuades her to drink water. Raymond saves Eleanor.
Because of the suicide attempt, Eleanor takes a leave of absence from the office and begins seeing a counselor, Maria Temple. At first, Eleanor is quite wary and standoffish with Maria. Mummy is off limits during the sessions until one day Eleanor mentions Marianne. That name brings many memories to the surface and Eleanor slowly opens up to Maria. At the same time, Eleanor and Raymond resume their weekly café lunches.
The therapy sessions with Maria help Eleanor to decide she will tell Mummy goodbye. Raymond also tells Eleanor that he has done some research and has discovered what happened in Eleanor’s childhood. At first, Eleanor tells Raymond she is not ready to rediscover the past horror. After a few more weeks of meeting with Maria, Eleanor is ready, and she and Raymond read the newspaper accounts together. Eleanor returns to work and is welcomed back by all of her coworkers. That is not to say the story is “happily ever after.” Eleanor has much to do to repair all the hurt; she is truly moving forward for the first time in her life and finding happiness in the world around her.
Janet Maslin in the New York Times calls Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine “a charmer…satisfyingly quirky.” I agree! Reese Witherspoon will produce a movie based on the novel.
Read Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine! You will be glad.