Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine Is Fine

oliphant-1Not great, just fine. Its strength is its protagonist, who I found just the right side of too contrived as a misfit, a figure of semi-comical pathos with a running undercurrent of desperation. That deeper, darker layer, however, for me was the novel’s weakness. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine purports to be a novel about loneliness: its blurb is from Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City and on the back is a review snippet calling it “an outstanding debut about loneliness.” But loneliness, it turns out, is a sideshow, or a side effect: it’s really a novel about trauma and recovery.

I’m not saying that a novel can’t be both of these things, but by the end of Eleanor Oliphant I was tired of the oh-so-gradual meting out of information about Eleanor’s tortured ( more or less literally) past and the carefully staged incremental movements towards her release from it. As a redemption narrative, the novel has its charming moments but is also relentlessly manipulative and, overall, predictable. And the thing is, I don’t think Eleanor needed all that background melodrama to be interesting, sad, and worth the effort. The novel reads like an Anne Tyler novel–it has many of Tyler’s characteristic themes and touches–but one written without Anne Tyler’s faith in the poignancy of the everyday, or her gift for emotional subtlety. I was engrossed in it, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was a slightly shoddy version of the better (different) book it could have been. Or maybe I just wanted to read a different book–Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, for instance.oliphant-2

That got me thinking, though: what are the really good novels about loneliness? Villette, of course! But what else? Scanning my index here, I’m reminded of Miral al-Tahawy’s Brooklyn Heightsand of Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night which is about two people who take a quiet stand against loneliness. Barbara Pym and Anita Brookner both seem likely candidates but single or solitary is not necessarily the same as lonely. What comes to mind for you when you think of novels about loneliness?

11 thoughts on “Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine Is Fine

  1. Jeanne December 12, 2018 / 9:01 pm

    I think of the children’s book The Secret Garden, by Burnett, and of the story Araby from Dubliners, by Joyce. Also Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping.


    • Rohan Maitzen December 13, 2018 / 5:19 pm

      Oh, The Secret Garden! I haven’t read that in so long: clearly it’s time. My daughter and I watched the (1993) film version many times: have you seen it? I really like it.


      • Jeanne December 18, 2018 / 4:13 pm

        I have not seen it. Since I saw the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird a few years ago I’ve been leery of watching any film based on a book I love.


  2. Scott Bailey December 13, 2018 / 5:54 pm

    The Stephen Dedalus half of Ulysses, and the second half of The Ambassadors. Also The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, which is probably too obvious. It’s hard to separate the idea of loneliness from that of alienation/isolation.


    • Rohan Maitzen December 13, 2018 / 8:02 pm

      Yeah, like I’m going to read The Ambassadors. 🙂 (But in fact since my reading of Portrait of a Lady I have been thinking it’s about time.)


      • Scott Bailey December 13, 2018 / 8:22 pm

        The Ambassadors is a lovely book! A beautiful comic novel.


  3. Amateur Reader (Tom) December 13, 2018 / 6:47 pm

    I was tempted to add The Little Prince for more or less that reason.

    The McCullers is a good choice just because the characters are so seldom alone. And yet.


    • Rohan Maitzen December 13, 2018 / 7:43 pm

      The suggestions I’ve had (here and on Twitter) have made me realize first that ‘loneliness’ is a state or concept that needs careful disentangling (or maybe can’t be disentangled) from related states like ‘being alone’ or ‘being single’ or ‘being sad,’ and second that deciding what a novel is ‘about’ is itself a big interpretive question. Does having lonely characters make a novel one ‘about’ loneliness?

      In my experience, loneliness can be much worse when you are among other people than when you are alone. I have and should reread the McCullers.


    • Rohan Maitzen December 16, 2018 / 11:43 am

      That does look pertinent! Thanks for the tip.


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