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Review: Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

By Curlygeek04 @curlygeek04

I read this book for the Read Harder 2018 challenge, because it had a female protagonist over the age of 60 (thanks to those who recommended it).  I was surprised by how few books have protagonists (male or female) over 60, and when they do, much of the book is spent in reminiscing about the character at a younger age.  This was true of this book as well.  It’s one of those split-timeline books where you have two stories running in parallel, one in the past and one in the present.

What I appreciated about this book is that it’s the present day character, Maud, who really takes center stage.  Maud is an elderly woman who is suffering from severe dementia, and this book is written from her point of view.  Maud is concerned that her close friend Elizabeth is missing, and she’s frustrated when the people who care for her don’t take her pleas seriously.  As her past and present gets more confused, we learn that Elizabeth isn’t the only mystery in Maud’s life.  Her older sister Sukey disappeared after World War II, when Maud was a teenager, and was never seen again.

I loved the way the book was written and the way Maud’s story is told.  My father, who is also in his 80’s, has said that no one who’s young can understand what it’s like to be old, and this book helps just a little bit with that understanding.  We see how limited Maud’s choices are, how – even though she is well cared for – being treated like a child can be painful.  We see her need to be independent, even when it’s clear she can’t take care of herself.  I loved Maud’s spirit and tenacity.  I was heartbroken each time she loses some piece of her independence, and at the same time I was frustrated and sad for the daughter who works so hard to care for her (I’m curious if other readers found Helen sympathetic or insensitive to Maud’s needs).

I found both storylines in this book fascinating.  The older Maud wants desperately to find her friend, though the reader can’t be sure Elizabeth is missing at all. The younger Maud experiences the challenges of World War II, her sister’s tumultuous marriage and then the tragedy of her disappearance.  Maud suspects either her sister’s husband Frank or the family boarder Doug, who seems to be paying Sukey a little too much attention.  And then there’s the crazy lady down the street.

How these stories merge together in Elizabeth’s mind made a lot of sense to me.  I suspect as we get older, there are a few key times we go back to over and over again in our minds, things we wish we could do differently or experience again.

A lot of psychological mystery novels push way too many details at the reader to throw them off.  Here, the story is kept fairly straightforward – there are only a few suspects, and everything takes place in pretty close proximity.  What’s really complicated is the struggle going on in Maud’s head.

I never knew my grandparents, so I couldn’t say that this book reminded me of someone I’ve known.  My parents are in their 70s and 80s though, and I think a lot about the challenges they are facing, and whether I will be supportive enough when they need care. This book is a too-rare opportunity to see the world from the perspective of someone in their 80’s, and a devastating insight into what it’s like to struggle with dementia.

This is Healey’s debut novel, published in 2015.  She published her second novel this year, and I’m sure it will be a tough follow-up to this one.

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