Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (and so are these cheddar scones)

The book: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman.

Last month, I read Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. The novel’s title character, Eleanor, lives a regimented and lonely life without realizing that anything is wrong: she goes to work and prepares healthy meals during the week, and enjoys pizza, wine, and vodka on the weekends. When Eleanor saves an elderly man’s life with the help of her coworker Raymond, the three of them become friends, enriching Eleanor’s life with positive social interaction for the first time in years. As the novel progresses, Eleanor’s formerly-mundane life is permanently changed by her friends, who look out and want the best for her.

I absolutely loved reading Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. The book somehow manages to strike the perfect balance between hilariousness and darkness. Having spent so many years without social interaction, Eleanor lacks the ability to read social cues, and often says outrageously blunt things without realizing that she is being offensive. Although Eleanor’s lack of filtering is often funny, it never feels like she is the butt-end of a joke. In fact, there are scenes where Eleanor’s coworkers do make fun of her, and those scenes come across as slightly sad rather than funny.

Additionally, author Gail Honeyman goes deeper than just portraying Eleanor’s bluntness as a humorous tic. Throughout the novel, Honeyman provides glimpses into Eleanor’s traumatic childhood, allowing the readers to understand that while Eleanor’s social skills are in some ways amusing, they are most likely coming from a place of pain. I loved this development, because it teaches that peoples’ unusual or unsettling treats generally come from somewhere – and that we should be empathetic rather than dismissive.

The next two paragraphs contains mild spoilers, so read at your own risk!

What I loved most about Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is that it eventually became a book about the real progress that can be made with therapy when people are willing to address their mental health issues. Eleanor’s time in therapy illustrates that opening up can initially be quite difficult, but that doing so can allow people to work through traumas, and better understand and improve themselves. The novel isn’t explicitly marketed as a “mental health book” – wisely so, I think – but it does ultimately take that direction, and it does so in a remarkably effective way.

I also loved how this book didn’t end with Eleanor getting into a romantic relationship! At the end of the book, it seems like romance could be in Eleanor’s future, but it is just as likely that her near future will be focused on friendship. I loved this ending, and the message that it carries: a romantic relationship is not the only type of “happy ending” a person can have. I wrote in a previous blog post that this message is starting to feel cliché, but a fellow blogger helped me realize that in today’s society, we really do still need this message to be reinforced.

Okay, done with spoilers.

If you couldn’t tell by the amount of times I used the word “love” in this post, I absolutely adored Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. The novel portrays loneliness and lonely people in a very empathetic light, and also demonstrates how friendship and earnest introspection can improve peoples’ lives. The book is also pretty funny, yet it never feels like it is making fun of Eleanor’s social skills or loneliness. There is a lot to be learned from this book, and I highly recommend it!

The bake: cheese scones.

For Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, I decided to bake something referenced in the book. As Eleanor and Raymond become good friends, they regularly get lunch together at a local cafe, where Eleanor always orders a cheese scone and a frothy coffee. So in tribute to Eleanor and Raymond’s friendship, I decided to bake my own cheese scones!

For the scones, I followed this recipe from King Arthur Flour, replacing the scallions with fresh basil (because that is what I had in my kitchen). I also included both of the optional ingredients (dijon mustard and hot sauce), because I thought they would give the scones more flavor. Overall, the recipe was pretty straightforward; the only complications were flouring the surface sufficiently to prevent the dough from sticking (scone dough is so sticky!), and shaping the scones.

These scones were lovely and flavorful! They turned out a bit flatter than I would have liked, but that is okay because perfection is not the purpose of my baking. I think other herbs besides scallions or basil would work in this recipe (rosemary comes to mind), so that might be something to experiment with in the future. Overall, these scones were a lot of fun to bake, and even more fun to eat. I ate one with a fried egg this morning; maybe tomorrow I’ll have one with frothy coffee.

The Dreamers (plus, a dreamy chocolate-cherry-almond bread)

The book: The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker.

As my personal life gets busier, I find myself wanting to read only binge-worthy fiction novels that offer me the chance to stop thinking about stressful realities and escape into a different universe. The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker was the perfect book for that. The premise of the novel is that a small town in California is confronted with an outbreak of a mysterious sleeping sickness. As the disease spreads through the town, scientists and government authorities try to manage the epidemic, and the threat of the illness affects various residents’ lifestyles and relationships.

Something that I appreciated about The Dreamers was its thoroughness: the novel offers glimpses into many facets of a major epidemic including the disease symptoms, the attempts to quarantine the infected and prevent further spread of the disease, the politicization of the epidemic, and the general chaos that follows the outbreak. The book also shows how fear spreads with the epidemic, and how the threat of becoming infected affects people in different ways. Mei, a shy college student, becomes bolder and more sure of herself. A young couple with a newborn baby is forced to confront marital issues they had intentionally repressed. Two young sisters gain the opportunity to think for themselves after the quarantine separates them from their controlling, paranoid father.

The Dreamers also subtly nods to other issues. Climate change – and the willful ignorance of those who continue living in precarious environments – is a major theme. The book also demonstrates (and I mean demonstrates, this issue is never explicitly discussed) how parents’ own biases and fears can negatively impact their children. These themes aren’t major foci in the novel – a book cannot responsibly cover every issue in under 300 pages – but they are there, and they add depth to the story.

The biggest weakness of The Dreamers might be that it attempts too much. There are too many characters, too many things going on, and too many themes. If you are someone who likes getting to know one or a few characters in all of their complexity, The Dreamers might disappoint you in that respect.

And speaking of disappointments, the ending of the novel was kind of underwhelming! That’s just my subjective opinion though, and sometimes an “underwhelming” ending is the most realistic one, as life isn’t always so dramatic. Overall, The Dreamers is an interesting and addictive novel that explores many aspects of humanity through the lens of a disease epidemic.

The bake: chocolate-cherry-almond challah.

During the week that I read The Dreamers – a novel about a town plagued by sleeping sickness – I barely slept at all. I was fatigued during the day and sleepy at night, yet still somehow unable to sleep! Because of the ironic timing of this insomnia spell, I decided to bake something inspired by sleep. I did some investigative research (i.e. a google search) into foods that help promote sleep, and among the results were cherries, almonds, and dark chocolate. Three flavors that I love and that taste great together: perfect for a bake!

I combined my favorite three sleep-promoting flavors together in a challah bread, following this recipe from King Arthur Flour. Instead of adding apples and raisins, though, I added the trifecta of chocolate, cherries, and almonds. And since I wasn’t using apples (which add moisture to the bread), I added an extra 1/4 cup of water. Also, I omitted the cinnamon sugar topping because I didn’t think it would go well with my flavors.

This challah recipe was awesome! I proved my dough (i.e. let it sit and rise) for the minimum recommended amount of time, and the loaf still got huge! The taste and texture of the bread were also great, and I think that many different fillings could work with the base challah recipe. Despite containing a trifecta of allegedly-sleep-promoting-fillings, I doubt this bread will actually put you to sleep…so you can enjoy it whenever you want! What a dream!