Novel is part mystery, part story of growing old

“Three Things About Elsie” by Joanna Cannon; Scribner Book Company; August 2018; 384 pp; $26

By Ann Jonas
For The Visitor

“’How did you fall, Flo?’ they’ll ask when they find me.”

This opening line sets the stage in Joanna Cannon’s new, second novel “Three Things About Elsie,” an enjoyable read about friendship and life in a retirement home, with some mystery and suspense mixed in.

Florence, an 84-year-old woman, has fallen in her apartment in Cherry Tree, an assisted living home, and is unable to get up. As she lies on the floor, she imagines how she will be found and, as time goes on, what will happen after she’s found. Florence hints that she has a secret buried in her past that is nagging at her.

Most of the chapters in the book are narrated by Florence. Early on, Florence introduces us to Elsie and tells us there are three things we should know about her. She then tells us the first thing: Elsie is Florence’s best friend. The second thing about Elsie isn’t revealed by Florence until the 10th chapter when she states that Elsie always knows the right thing to say. Elsie is clearly the one person who understands and steadies Florence. The third thing about Elsie isn’t revealed until very late in the book.

Florence is a spunky, lovable woman, though she may not be an entirely reliable narrator of this story. Readers will get the sense early on that Florence might be a bit forgetful and perhaps senile. She is certainly a little cantankerous and doesn’t enjoy the activities held at Cherry Tree. She has been there for almost five years and the home’s director has told Florence that they are considering moving her to Greenbank, which, in Florence’s eyes, is a dreaded nursing home. Florence is told she has one month to show that she still belongs at Cherry Tree by joining in the activities and socializing more with the other residents.

As Florence is lying on the floor, she reminisces about events in her life. She is concerned that the secret she has carried throughout her adult life will be revealed. A new resident has recently moved into Cherry Tree, and he looks remarkably like a man from Florence’s past who died more than 60 years ago. Although he has a different name, Florence is distrustful of him and concerned when things in her apartment go missing or are moved. As the story continues, the connection between this man and Florence is revealed as is Florence’s secret.

“Three Things About Elsie” is an entertaining tale that moves along at an enjoyable pace. Although parts of it are perhaps somewhat predictable, the book is an interesting combination of a mystery and an amusing story of growing old. The overall themes of friendship and small kindnesses make this tale a delightful and engaging read.

Cannon lives in England and is a graduate of Leicester Medical School. She worked as a hospital doctor and then specialized in psychiatry. According to her website, her “work as a psychiatrist and interest in people on the fringes of society continue to inspire her writing.” Her first novel, “The Trouble with Goats and Sheep,” was published in 2016.

“Three Things About Elsie” is available in bookstores everywhere, including the College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University Bookstores.

Ann Jonas is the general book buyer for the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University.

About The Visitor

The Visitor is the official newpaper for the Diocese of Saint Cloud.

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