My Cuban mother — God bless her soul — used to lament, “Ivonne, ¡llegar a viejo es lo último!” (Ivonne, getting old is the absolute worst!) Still in my 30s, I nodded sympathetically, but I really had no idea at all. Emma Healey’s Elizabeth Is Missing brought those memories back for me — rather ironic for a novel about the gradual fading of memory.
Elizabeth Is Missing ostensibly recounts how Maud Horsham, a tenacious 80-plus-year-old Englishwoman battling dementia, tries to investigate the abrupt disappearance of her longtime best friend, Elizabeth Markham. But it was a very, very different novel to what I imagined. (To say any more would be to spoil it.) However, I can say that this bittersweet novel, in addition to examine Maud’s obsession to the very end with finding Elizabeth, unblinkingly examines the indignities, small frights, embarrassments, patronizing remarks and attitudes, and limitations that come with aging. Whether humorous, cringe-worthy, or poignant, these episodes ring so true to life. This exploration of the fragility of memory and identity, coupled with two fabulous mysteries, will keep you glued to Healey’s amazing debut novel.
Maud calls Elizabeth repeatedly, then repeatedly visits Elizabeth’s home, then visits her church, and Maud keeps on relentlessly investigating. Recognizing her slipping mind, Maud scrupulously jots down her every discovery and clue on slips of paper she squirrels away in her purse.Although her daughter Helen, granddaughter Katie, caregiver Carla, and just about everyone else presumes that Maud is merely indulging a senile obsession, Maud knows that something has gone terribly wrong — no matter what Peter, Elizabeth’s tightfisted, unpleasant, foul-mouthed son, tells the world.
As Maud investigates Elizabeth’s disappearance, she finds herself increasingly thinking about another disappearance nearly 70 years ago, when her beloved older sister, Susan “Sukey” Gerard, vanished in the autumn of 1946. Both cases contain remarkable parallels. Investigating one disappearance reopens that earlier case in Elizabeth’s mind, which she re-examines in a fresh light. As the novel progresses, Maud remembers less and less about the now and more and more about then.
Readers will find themselves embracing proud, vulnerable Maud, who writes herself notes on the case for when her memory fails. They’ll also find themselves sympathizing with Maud’s beleaguered daughter Helen and enjoying Maud’s cheerful bohemian teenage granddaughter Katie. A loyal friend to the end, Maud doesn’t want to let go until she gets to the truth — and you’ll find you can’t let go of Maud Horsham long after you’ve devoured the last page and unraveled both mysteries, the new and the old.
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