Review: Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

I read this book for the Read Harder 2018 challenge, because it had a female protagonist over the age of 60 (thanks to those who recommended it).  I was surprised by how few books have protagonists (male or female) over 60, and when they do, much of the book is spent in reminiscing about the character at a younger age.  This was true of this book as well.  It’s one of those split-timeline books where you have two stories running in parallel, one in the past and one in the present.

What I appreciated about this book is that it’s the present day character, Maud, who really takes center stage.  Maud is an elderly woman who is suffering from severe dementia, and this book is written from her point of view.  Maud is concerned that her close friend Elizabeth is missing, and she’s frustrated when the people who care for her don’t take her pleas seriously.  As her past and present gets more confused, we learn that Elizabeth isn’t the only mystery in Maud’s life.  Her older sister Sukey disappeared after World War II, when Maud was a teenager, and was never seen again.

I loved the way the book was written and the way Maud’s story is told.  My father, who is also in his 80’s, has said that no one who’s young can understand what it’s like to be old, and this book helps just a little bit with that understanding.  We see how limited Maud’s choices are, how – even though she is well cared for – being treated like a child can be painful.  We see her need to be independent, even when it’s clear she can’t take care of herself.  I loved Maud’s spirit and tenacity.  I was heartbroken each time she loses some piece of her independence, and at the same time I was frustrated and sad for the daughter who works so hard to care for her (I’m curious if other readers found Helen sympathetic or insensitive to Maud’s needs).

I found both storylines in this book fascinating.  The older Maud wants desperately to find her friend, though the reader can’t be sure Elizabeth is missing at all. The younger Maud experiences the challenges of World War II, her sister’s tumultuous marriage and then the tragedy of her disappearance.  Maud suspects either her sister’s husband Frank or the family boarder Doug, who seems to be paying Sukey a little too much attention.  And then there’s the crazy lady down the street.

How these stories merge together in Elizabeth’s mind made a lot of sense to me.  I suspect as we get older, there are a few key times we go back to over and over again in our minds, things we wish we could do differently or experience again.

A lot of psychological mystery novels push way too many details at the reader to throw them off.  Here, the story is kept fairly straightforward – there are only a few suspects, and everything takes place in pretty close proximity.  What’s really complicated is the struggle going on in Maud’s head.

I never knew my grandparents, so I couldn’t say that this book reminded me of someone I’ve known.  My parents are in their 70s and 80s though, and I think a lot about the challenges they are facing, and whether I will be supportive enough when they need care. This book is a too-rare opportunity to see the world from the perspective of someone in their 80’s, and a devastating insight into what it’s like to struggle with dementia.

This is Healey’s debut novel, published in 2015.  She published her second novel this year, and I’m sure it will be a tough follow-up to this one.

  8 comments for “Review: Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

  1. July 21, 2018 at 8:55 am

    Great review! I read this book in January for the same challenge that you did. I loved it. I have Emma Healey’s second book on my TBR list, but most of the reviews I’ve seen so far have been pretty bad. I still want to read it, though.

  2. Susie | Novel Visits
    July 21, 2018 at 9:14 am

    Great review and a really interesting premise for a novel. I’d never really stopped to think about it, but you’re so right that there are few novels centered on people over 60. That’s sad. I’m glad this one worked so well and that you’ve shone a light on it.

  3. July 21, 2018 at 8:49 pm

    Great review. I definitely want to check this book out now. I read a book that had a parallel story line earlier this year called the Obituary Writer. Was so good.

  4. July 22, 2018 at 12:23 pm

    So glad you enjoyed this. Like you I thought Healey portrayed Maud extremely well so that while we could laugh at her (all those peaches) we can also feel for her in her frustration that no-one is listening to her.

  5. July 22, 2018 at 2:38 pm

    Wow! This sounds like a really good book. I’m adding it to my TBR right now.

    I was thinking the other day about how you really don’t see too many elderly protagonists. You see some in their 40s or whatever, lots of younger people, but not too many old people. I guess it’s really hard to write about people that are significantly older than yourself because you don’t know what it’s like. You’d probably have to work with the elderly or care for elderly parents to even have a way to start writing a book like that.

  6. November 28, 2018 at 8:11 pm

    I wanted to share my experience about my mother who recently passed from Alzheimer’s. I think the author portrays Helen in a very positive way. Helen is absolutely the best daughter a mom could have when it comes to caring. It was with a heavy heart that I found my sister mistreating my mother when I came t visit her several years before she passed. I immediately placed my mother in a caregiver’s home where she was treated with the utmost dignity she so deserved. I was heartbroken and shocked at the conditions my mother was living in. I felt a lot of guilt for not being there for her. However, I was able to visit her about 6 times in the course of 2 years before the end. This author knows what it’s like to deal with those with dementia. I highly recommend this book. Thanks for your review! I always like the books you recommend.

    • November 29, 2018 at 7:00 pm

      Thank you for sharing, and I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m glad to hear you felt the book was a good representation of dementia and its impact on families.

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