Incredibly, Eleanor Oliphant is Gail Honeyman’s debut novel, written on lunch breaks and in the early hours of the morning when she could fit it in around her job at Glasgow University. With her fortieth birthday approaching, Gail had decided it was now or never for her dream of writing a book, and two years of hard work and focus later, Eleanor Oliphant was a fully-fledged character in her very own book. And Gail already had success knocking at her door; Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine was shortlisted for the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize as a work in progress, and awarded the Scottish Book Trust’s Next Chapter Award in 2014.
In this story we meet Eleanor Oliphant, a thirty year old office worker with a rigid routine of the same food, clothes and activities week after week. Her weekends are spent shut away in her flat with two bottles of vodka and no reason to speak to anyone other than the occasional caller asking if she’s been miss-sold PPI. Known as a bit of an oddball around the office, Eleanor often finds that others look uncomfortable when she speaks to them, but she puts it down to their poor social skills and bad manners. But when a chance encounter throws Eleanor and a new colleague in IT together, a tentative and platonic friendship slowly develops that threatens to tear down the walls that Eleanor has built around herself. Maybe Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine; but is ‘fine’ enough?
Chronic loneliness as a theme is something that many writers have shied away from, but in a world where studies on our increasing loneliness are often making the headlines, it’s a wonder that it’s not something we talk about more within fiction. When asked about the inspiration for Eleanor’s story, Gail Honeyman revealed:
‘The idea for the book was initially sparked by an article I read about loneliness. It included an interview with a young woman who lived alone in a big city, had an apartment and a job, but who said that unless she made a special effort, she would often leave work on a Friday night and not talk to anyone again until Monday morning. That really struck me, because when loneliness is discussed in the media, it’s usually in the context of older people. When I thought more about it, I realized that there were plenty of potential routes to a young person finding themselves in those circumstances, through no fault of their own, and how hard it can be, at any age, to forge meaningful connections. From this, the story and the character of Eleanor slowly began to emerge.’
But while Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine has an important and uplifting message, it’s also full of lots of natural and intelligent humour.
‘It was fun to write someone who isn’t charming,’ Gail Honeyman admitted about her leading character. ‘She’s not a people-pleaser, she’s not someone who people naturally warm to. But that creates quite a lot of dramatic potential for everyday encounters. I made myself laugh quite a lot because I would think about different situations and think, ‘What would Eleanor do?’ She would always do the strangest or the least predictable thing.’
From the moment our Books team put it down, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine became an instant contender for our Book of the Year 2017. WHSmith Fiction Buyer, Sue Scholes, commented:
‘I am absolutely delighted that Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is the WHSmith Fiction Book of the Year for 2017. I absolutely loved it, and so did everyone else who I know who has read it. It’s a very deserving winner.’
‘This is a novel of contradictions – light and shade, laughter and tears, quirky and serious. However, the biggest contradiction of all is the character of Eleanor herself. Gail Honeyman has created a multilayered leading lady who at first seems quiet and a little withdrawn from the ‘normal’ world of office life. The skill of the novel is in gradually revealing the layers beneath the surface. It’s a heartfelt picture of loneliness and a lesson in the power of everyday kindness to change people’s lives. There is humour and lightness in Eleanor’s struggle with the accepted rules of everyday life and real sweetness in the developing friendships that help her ultimately move towards being ‘fine’.’
‘When I finished Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine two things happened. I wanted to recommend it to everyone and found myself wanted to find others who had already read it so I could discuss it with them. I also found myself thinking of Eleanor and hoping that she was ok. If that’s not the mark of a great book, I don’t know what is. Read it, enjoy it and pass it on!’
Our book-loving friends Richard and Judy added:
‘We love discovering talented new authors and wonderful new books, and sharing those discoveries with other readers. That’s why we’re delighted that Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine has been picked as the WHSmith Book of the Year. It’s already one of the bestselling debut novels of 2017 and that’s no surprise – it’s a wonderful read; a book that has it all – sad, funny, engaging, intelligent and warm. In Eleanor, Gail Honeyman has created a character who is both unique and at the same time recognisable. This is a timeless story about loneliness – and how simple kindness has the power to change lonely lives.’
Congratulations to Gail Honeyman, and all the other books that have been sent out into the world in 2017. We can’t wait to see what 2018 has in store for us…