Cringe Culture is a weekly post in which I’ll look at books, film and TV and discuss the particular elements that make the audience, or characters, cringe.
Recently, I read Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine which is the astonishingly brilliant debut from author Gail Honeyman. I’d heard and read all sorts of wonderful things about it and was so glad to finally get around to reading it that I inhaled it in two days flat. It did not disappoint.
Without revealing any spoilers, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is about the titular Eleanor, who is a bit of an oddball to say the least. As we are introduced to her life at the start of the book we learn it is one of routine and pragmatism. For instance, Eleanor eats the same meal deal every day and wears the same clothes. She reads voraciously but often chooses the first book she sees in the shop because she doesn’t see the point in hunting for something just right. Her weekends are similarly regimented and she spends them catatonic on cheap vodka and notes that she often doesn’t talk to a single person for the duration.
We come to understand that Eleanor is lonely and perhaps because of her significant lack of social contact she’s developed a few quirks. These quirks lead to the novel’s cringiest and most uncomfortable moments.
Eleanor Oliphant is not a character who particularly feels embarrassment and it is perhaps her lack of shame, or social graces, that causes the reader to cringe on her behalf. She often misreads social cues or is completely oblivious to standard social etiquette. On one occasion she gifts the host of a party with a half drunk bottle of vodka and a packet of cheese slices, reasoning that all men like cheese. It is her steadfast belief that this gift is entirely adequate that makes the reader grit their teeth with embarrassment for the poor soul.
Through the novel, Eleanor has many awkward encounters, though she is rarely aware that they are uncomfortable. When she first orders a pizza she wonders if the delivery man will bring a comically large black pepper grinder and passes him his money in an addressed envelope. When a helpful shop assistant tells her to go and get a make over at the Bobbi Brown counter in a department store, Eleanor asks where Bobbi is, expecting to see her. Perhaps the most painful encounter of this sort is when Eleanor, having had her nails manicured allows the nail technician to delve into her ‘shopper’ and grab her purse,
“I remembered the unfinished remains of the egg sandwich which lay within – she gagged ostentatiously as she removed my purse. A slight overreaction, I felt – yes, the odour which escaped was somewhat sulphurous, but still, no need for pantomime.”
This is the closest Eleanor comes to being embarrassed (deep shame is another matter though) but she soon recovers enough to inform the technician that she won’t be returning as she could do a better manicure at home, for free.
The way others treat and react to Eleanor is on the most part heartbreaking but there are moments that make you cringe too. Eleanor refuses to let it bother her though, at least outwardly.
Early in the novel she overhears her workmates talking about her, an episode that is repeated later in the novel, neither occasion phases her but when her colleagues realise she’s in earshot the reader does cringe for them – is there anything worse than talking about someone and then realising they’re close by? Did they hear anything? How should you proceed now, do you act like nothing’s happened or apologise? Well, no one apologises to Eleanor.
Eleanor’s formal way of interacting with her peers, perhaps a way of keeping them at arms length, or a result of not enough practise, makes the reader squirm. There are countless examples of her rather superior, naive way of talking to other people.
There’s the time she goes for a bikini wax and dismayed with the results berates the technician, though the entire interaction is cringeworthy, not just Eleanor’s eruption. There’s also the way Eleanor, herself judged on her looks by others, snobbishly judges others, especially poor Raymond. The first time she meets him she remarks, “A lot of unattractive men seem to walk in such a manner, I’ve noticed.” Later, there’s the time she appears to buy Raymond a drink only to corner him as he sets off home to request her £4 back. What makes you cringe isn’t that she requests the money, but the way the whole exchange comes about and Eleanor’s obliviousness to the idea of buying rounds because she’s never been in a position to witness what most people consider normal, social behaviour.
Even Eleanor’s references are strange, betraying her lack of social interaction and showing how she lives in her own little world in her head. She chooses a nail polish colour that reminds her of a deadly, poisonous frog. When she has her make up done she remarks that she looks like “a small Madagascan primate” and is thrilled.
The unfortunate Eleanor also has a facial disfigurement and through her eyes you see what it’s like to be stared at and shied away from for reasons beyond your control. It’s the normalcy Eleanor treats the negative reactions of others with that really make you sad. When she first enters the nail bar she notes that the technician
“and her companion were both staring, their expressions a combination of alarm and…well, alarm, mainly. I smiled in what I hoped was a reassuring manner.”
and later at a party,
“She didn’t smile at me, which is the normal state of affairs in most encounters I have with other people.”
On these occasions I don’t cringe on Eleanor’s behalf, but for the way other people, so concerned with outward appearances, treat her as though she is completely devoid of feelings and intelligence.
I could talk about so much more in relation to this book – it’s one that makes you snort with laughter on one page and punches you in the gut with sadness on the next.
Have you read Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine? What did you think? Let me know which parts made you cringe in the comments.