Three Things About Elsie received rave reviews when it was first published in the UK at the beginning of this year. A lot of readers across the pond wanted to see it in the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist, although, unfortunately, it didn’t make it. But in any case, their gushing praises were enough to make me want to read it!
Three Things About Elsie revolves around Florence, an eighty-four-year-old living in Cherry Tree assisted living community. I know, given the title, it sounds a bit strange to discover that someone else other than Elsie is the main protagonist – however, it really doesn’t matter because Elsie is still a big part of Three Things About Elsie.
Going into the story, we are told two things about Elsie. 1) She is Florence’s best friend. 2) She’s always there for Florence. The third thing about her is only revealed at the end. I thought that was a powerful technique cleverly used by Joanna Cannon to keep her readers absorbed in the story – I had an inkling of what it would be, but I didn’t want to put the book down until I found out for sure!
And that’s not even the only mystery in the book! We have Gabriel Price, the charming new resident at Cherry Tree, who Florence firmly believes to be Ronnie Butler from her past. The story unravels as Florence tries to piece together her memories with the help of Elsie and Jack, another friend of Florence’s in Cherry Tree, and this ultimately tells us who Ronnie is and why Florence is so terrified of him.
While it was entertaining to read about Florence playing amateur sleuth in her quest to find the truth about Gabriel Price, what interested me more is Cannon’s shrewd awareness of how society treats the elderly who are often pitied and dismissed. It saddened me to see Florence doubting herself after Miss Ambrose, the second-in-command at Cherry Tree threatened to transfer her to another assisted living facility which housed elders with progressed illnesses. Florence detested not being able to have control over her life and viewed this ‘threat’ as forcing her to give up the little independence she has, although, towards the end, it becomes clear that Florence is in denial of her own cognitive impairment.
Apart from challenges associated with ageing, Cannon also writes beautifully about grief – how different people cope with it, and how some people carry their pain within them their entire life. I also loved the “long second” concept in the story – which basically means even the smallest encounter or the tiniest act of kindness can have a profound impact on someone else’s life.
While I admit I’m more upset about A Boy in Winter not making it into the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist than this, Three Things About Elsie is still a pretty good, cozy read. Cannon’s debut, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep also seems to be very popular on Goodreads, and now I can’t wait to read it!
Note: Many thanks to Scribner for sending me a review copy of Three Things About Elsie. (on sale: 07 August 2018)