From the Stacks: Layered story laced with mystery honors aging

Florence Claybourne, a resident of Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly, took a bad fall in her flat and is awaiting someone to come to her aid. During her wait, she reminisces about Elsie, a lifelong friend, with whom she shares some difficult memories from their youth. 

Her memories are clouded by dementia and a belief that someone is breaking into her rooms and taking prized possessions. She insists the culprit is a new resident, a man who resembles Ronnie Butler and uses the name of Gabriel Price. Ronnie was involved in a dark incident from her past, which haunts her still today. But Ronnie died years ago. Or maybe he didn't?

So begins Florence's search for answers with the help of caring residents in Joanna Cannon's "Three Things About Elsie." But there's no help from Miss Bissell, the independent living center's head administrator, who believes Florence's dementia has progressed to the point that she's recommending a move to Greenbank, a restrictive facility and a prospect most residents fear. Miss Bissell is giving Florence a month of probation to prove her worthiness to stay at Cherry Tree.

Florence is opinionated and funny, with a fierce determination to prove she's right about Ronnie/Gabriel. She enlists the help of Anthea Ambose, an administrative assistant who's genuinely concerned with Florence's well-being. Also helping is General Jack, retired from the military and a Cherry Tree resident, who believes Florence and volunteers to help with her search. He enlists his son, who provides transport to various sites during their investigation. Simon, who works as a handyman at Cherry Tree, always keeps a watchful eye on Florence and her activities. And Elsie knows what to say to Florence in times of distress.

During the investigation, Florence meets a woman who knew Ronnie and says, "It's the greatest advantage of reminiscing. The past can be exactly how you wanted it to be the first time around." The mystery is eventually "solved," although the reader only finds out at the story's end. It's the third thing about Elsie.

This is a layered story, with secrets and mysteries, complicated by Florence's mental lapses. It's buoyed by the wisdom and observations of the residents, whose memorable comments about aging provide a realistic look at daily life in an institutional setting. As one resident said, "Between us, we would work out how many days it was until Christmas, and we would say how quickly the time passes, and saying how quickly the time passes would help to pass the time a little more."

The author is a former doctor with Britain's National Health Service who later worked as a psychiatrist. She understands that loneliness often accompanies aging and the pain of nostalgia. Her story honors those who endure ageism, said to be society's last "permissible" prejudice. Through her vivid characters, she presents the value of all lives, quiet or dramatic, long or short.

Madeline Matson is the reference and adult programming librarian at the Missouri River Regional Library.