“…I suppose losing your mind can prove quite helpful sometimes, because it does hint there is a possibility, however slim, that you may find it again.” Florence Claybourne
Dr. Joanna Cannon is a psychiatrist and the author of this poignant and compassionate novel about four elderly people in an assisted living facility. The fifth main character is dementia. Florence Claybourne’s dementia to be quite specific. Florence lives at Cherry Hill Home for the Elderly against her wishes, and now she may be moved to Greenbanks, a memory care facility against her wishes as well. Her lifelong best friend is Elsie who came to live at Cherry Hill right after Florence moved in. Florence says there are three things about Elsie: 1. She is Florence’s best friend; 2. She always knows the right thing to say to make Florence feel better; 3. It’s hard to explain and sometimes Florence can’t remember it anyway. What throws Florence and Elsie into a tailspin is when a man named Gabriel Price moves into Cherry Hill. The ladies knew him as Ronnie Butler who drowned in 1953.
Florence feels threatened by Gabriel/Ronnie’s sudden appearance but can’t remember why. She and Elsie along with their friend General Jack begin putting the pieces together. Ronnie was the boyfriend of Elsie’s sister, Beryl. Ronnie was a hard-drinking violent man who ran over and killed Beryl one night in 1953. Florence tells Elsie and Jack that Ronnie is out to get her but again she has to put the memories together to know why. The reader experiences Florence’s frustration when she tries to explain that Gabriel/Ronnie is not who he says he is and that he is behind all these memory and judgement mishaps that begin happening to Florence. She didn’t buy those 23 Battenberg cakes! There are great quotes by Florence as Elsie helps her remember the night Beryl was killed and the other terrible things that happened afterwards. Florence confesses, “I tried to find the memory and pull it back in, but it felt very far away, and the elastic was too loose…Sometimes, you feel a memory, before you see it. Even though your eyes can’t quite find it, you can smell it and taste it, and hear it shouting to you from the back of your mind.” Yes, Florence would be what we would call an unreliable narrator who believes she was the one who caused Ronnie to drown. She has been tormented by her memory gaps for years. Elsie tells her to find forgiveness for herself. Elsie says, “There is so much more to us, Florence than the worse thing we have ever done.” General Jack tells Florence that “Everyone of us is damaged. We need the faults, the breaks, the fracture lines…However else would all the light get in?” Jack reminds her we can’t define our lives by a single moment. It’s everything else in our lives that define us.
This is all I’m going to tell you because I don’t want to post this with a bunch of spoiler alerts. There are twists and turns everywhere. I will end with two wonderful quotes by sweet Elsie and one more tidbit of wisdom from Florence. Elsie has an expression she calls the “long second” which is “when you catch the clock, holding on to a second for just a fraction longer than it should. When the world gives you just a little bit more time to make the right decision. There are long seconds all over the place. We just don’t always notice them.” Also Elsie once told Florence that “you can’t tell how big a moment is until you turn back and look at it…” Elsie- full of wisdom about how to live with ourselves. And Florence, who has lived long enough to lose the people she has loved most, says, “I think the hardest part of loosing anyone is that you still have to live with the same scenery. It’s just that the person you are used to isn’t part of it anymore, and all you notice are all the gaps where they used to be. It feels as though, if you concentrate hard enough, you can find them again in those empty spaces. Waiting for you. ”
Dr. Cannon writes of life, friendship and old age with such knowledge, compassion and wisdom. You will love Florence who always tries so hard to do the right thing and to be a good person. She does and she is, more than she remembers.
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