BookBrowse Reviews Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon

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Three Things About Elsie

by Joanna Cannon

Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon X
Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2018, 384 pages
    Paperback:
    Jul 2019, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Sarah Tomp
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Three Things About Elsie is a cozy-style mystery that takes a wry look at aging, life-long friendships, and the cost of keeping secrets.

The novel opens with the primary narrator, Florence, prone on the floor after a fall. She is in her apartment at Cherry Tree Retirement Community waiting to be discovered and rescued. She is not panicked, or even seriously concerned. Instead, she becomes reflective, narrating how she came to be in this predicament. Her patient wait for assistance is woven through the story with periodic updates on her physical and emotional status as she shares her life story, working backwards. Although the set-up is potentially dire, Florence's acerbic wit and charm keep the narrative from becoming maudlin.

The novel's main strength lies in its character development. Florence is a compelling and intriguing woman who has lived a fascinating life. Front and center with Florence is her life-long best friend Elsie, whose opinions and interpretations of events provide a counterbalance to the protagonist's. In the spirit of the title, here are Three Things About Florence.

  1. Florence is confused.

    Strange things are happening at the usually peaceful Cherry Tree Retirement Center. Florence's elephant figurine is moved on the mantelpiece. Items go missing. Her lost book turns up in the refrigerator. She discovers a ridiculous surplus of her favorite treat in the cupboard. Someone is trying to make it look like she's losing her marbles, and it's working. As she becomes increasingly agitated in response to these strange occurrences, Ms. Ambrose, the center's assistant director, informs her she is on a one-month probation period. If her confusion continues, she may be forced to transfer to Greenbriar, the more restrictive convalescent home.

    Florence suspects the new enigmatic resident, Gabriel Price, is to blame for the strange events. She can't explain it, but she is certain he is really Ronnie Butler, a man she and Elsie knew long ago, someone who has good reason to seek revenge. As Florence recalls their shared history, it becomes difficult to know if her confusion is due to the onset of dementia or if she's truly being manipulated.

  2. She has a band of allies.

    In the retirement community, Florence is surrounded by a strong supporting cast. Although she is the primary narrator, the author provides brief interludes from the perspective of Simon, the simple but heart-of-gold handyman, and the perpetually flustered Ms. Ambrose. Their views allow the reader an outside perspective on Florence's troubles. Although Florence is feisty and opinionated, she's also perceptive and caring, and clearly loved by those around her, even if they are doubting her state of mind.

    "General" Jack, a retired military officer is a loyal friend to Florence. He is charming and gallant and a willing (and abetting) participant in her various escapades. Most importantly, Jack believes Florence's suspicions about the man known as Gabriel, and his son is willing to take the two of them out of the retirement center so they can search for clues. The friendship between Florence and Jack is one of my favorite aspects of this story.

  3. She has secrets.

    Although Florence is determined to solve the mystery surrounding Gabriel Price, the reader is engaged in an additional mystery: What is Florence hiding? Is she an unreliable narrator intentionally withholding information, or is she not mentally sound? Her own comments on her mental state further muddy the waters: "There were times when the present felt so unimportant, so unnecessary. Just somewhere I had to dip into from time to time."

    The more we learn about Florence (and Elsie's) relationship with Ronnie Butler, the more secrets we discover. The result is a story with layers of mystery, with some solutions more obvious than others. Although this allowed for plot twists and surprises, the complicated nature of her secrets felt unnecessarily convoluted at times.

Three Things About Elsie is a satisfying cozy mystery (See Beyond the Book) featuring a charming cast of characters in a setting not often represented in literature. In addition to its escapades and revelations, this story is sprinkled with bits of philosophical wisdom and humor centered around aging. Cannon's thoughts on nostalgia and memory are particularly insightful: "Perhaps the most important moments of all turn out to be the ones we walk through without thinking, the ones we mark down as just another day."

Reviewed by Sarah Tomp

This review was originally published in August 2018, and has been updated for the July 2019 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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