Monday, September 29, 2014

Review: Elizabeth is Missing

Summary: In this darkly riveting debut novel—a sophisticated psychological mystery that is also an heartbreakingly honest meditation on memory, identity, and aging—an elderly woman descending into dementia embarks on a desperate quest to find the best friend she believes has disappeared, and her search for the truth will go back decades and have shattering consequences.

Maud, an aging grandmother, is slowly losing her memory—and her grip on everyday life. Yet she refuses to forget her best friend Elizabeth, whom she is convinced is missing and in terrible danger.

But no one will listen to Maud—not her frustrated daughter, Helen, not her caretakers, not the police, and especially not Elizabeth’s mercurial son, Peter. Armed with handwritten notes she leaves for herself and an overwhelming feeling that Elizabeth needs her help, Maud resolves to discover the truth and save her beloved friend.

This singular obsession forms a cornerstone of Maud’s rapidly dissolving present. But the clues she discovers seem only to lead her deeper into her past, to another unsolved disappearance: her sister, Sukey, who vanished shortly after World War II.

As vivid memories of a tragedy that occurred more fifty years ago come flooding back, Maud discovers new momentum in her search for her friend. Could the mystery of Sukey’s disappearance hold the key to finding Elizabeth? -- Harper

When I picked up ELIZABETH IS MISSING by Emma Healey, I thought the book's description sounded so unique -- an elderly woman with dementia trying to figure out what happened to her best friend. This character gives an all new meaning to the term "unreliable narrator."

ELIZABETH IS MISSING tells the story of Maud, an older woman who is suffering from the affects of memory loss. She believes her best friend Elizabeth has disappeared and she is determined to discover what happened to her. She recognizes that her memory is not the best, so she leaves notes for herself about her investigation. Maud keeps discovering her notes only to realize that she doesn't really understand what they mean.

Maud becomes fixated on Elizabeth and her daughter Helen, the police, and even her caretakers never really take her seriously. As Maud becomes more frustrated, her memory seems to lapse even more; and she begins to confuse Elizabeth's disappearance with a traumatic event from her past -- her sister Sukey's unsolved disappearance right after World War II.

I liked ELIZABETH IS MISSING, but I didn't love it. If you've read my blog over the past few years, I've mentioned on more than one occasion that I think it's hard to effectively use an unreliable narrator to tell a story. Sometimes, I feel manipulated and end up resenting the novel, while other times, I just don't think they work. In the case of this novel, I didn't feel manipulated, but I did feel as if Maud's character wasn't all that convincing. There is definitely a reason for this....

ELIZABETH IS MISSING was the third book in a row that I read last week with a character with dementia. I thought that was pretty odd coincidence since I can't remember the last time I read a book about that condition. The reason I mention this is that I think it affected my overall opinion of the novel. While ELIZABETH IS MISSING had such a great premise, I didn't really appreciate this book like I had hoped. One of the other novels that I read earlier was so well-written and explored the subject of dementia in such an amazing way that I think my expectations for Maud's character might have been too high.

Despite this feeling, I do think ELIZABETH IS MISSING was a clever mystery. I suspected early on what "happened" to Elizabeth so I wasn't really surprised by that outcome; however, I did think the mystery of Sukey's disappearance was intriguing. I appreciated how Maud's mind confused the two major events, and I thought the author did a good job of merging the two stories and transitioning back and forth between them. There were definitely times when I wasn't sure what to think (or believe), and while I wanted to trust Maud, I just couldn't because of her dementia. There is absolutely no doubt that her condition blurred the lines for me and made the mysteries all the more difficult to solve.

One thing that I definitely appreciated about this novel was how it explored some important themes while also providing an entertaining mystery. Obviously ELIZABETH IS MISSING delved into the subjects of memory, loss, and love; however, it also explore friendship, compassion, and grief. Because the author showed so much of what was occurring in Maud's mind, as well as how it affected those close to her, she featured what a horrible condition dementia is. Even though there was definitely some humor and lighter moments in the story, I still think she effectively showed the difficulties of having a loved one with memory loss.

I considered ELIZABETH IS MISSING to be a literary mystery, and I do think it could be discussed by book clubs. Maud, as well as some of the characters from her past, are interesting; and their actions and motivations are definitely discussion worthy. In addition, the themes of memory and loss run throughout the story. I wasn't able to find a formal discussion guide; however, I don't think one is necessary.

ELIZABETH IS MISSING is an intriguing mystery (or two) with a memorable narrator. Recommended for fans of literary mysteries!

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this novel.

Mystery Mondays is a regular feature where I review all types of mystery books -- traditional mysteries, suspense/thrillers, and even cozies! Please feel free to share your thoughts on any recent mystery books that you've read. Mystery Mondays is a regular feature where I review all types of mystery books -- traditional mysteries, suspense/thrillers, and even cozies! Please feel free to share your thoughts on any recent mystery books that you've read.


bermudaonion said...

I know what you mean about unreliable narrators but when it's done well, I think it's terrific. This sounds like it's worth reading.

Sandy Nawrot said...

It seems like over the last few years, stories about people with memory loss is everywhere. Just one of those crazy trends you see in fiction, not unlike stories where the entire plot isn't real but in the mind of the unreliable narrator, or young adults in some sort of dystopian coming-of-age test. Just makes you wish more people would come up with some of their own ideas!

Becca said...

I really liked this one but then again I haven't read a book about a character with dementia....ever. So this was my first experience with it.