Marie’s Reading: “Elizabeth Is Missing” by Emma Healey

Elizabeth is MissingNot since my Jennifer McMahon binge have I read such an un-put-down-able novel.  I read about it a while ago, but it was an encounter with a reader at the library that got me started on it.

A regular patron was in on Saturday morning.  She asked, “Have you read Elizabeth Is Missing?”

“No!” I replied, “But it’s on my list.”  And it has been.  I’d actually checked it out and had to return it unread (story of my life) earlier in the week.    “Is it good?”

But the patron just smiled coyly at me.  I pressed her.  “Is it really compelling?  Is it well-done?”

Nothing.  Just that smile.

“You’re not going to tell me anything, are you?” I asked.  And she scooped up her books without making eye contact and said, “Bye!”

Out the door she went.  I went immediately to the New Fiction shelf, snatched up Elizabeth Is Missing, and started reading it on my morning break.  I finished it in one weekend.

If it turns out that coy smile meant the patron hated it, I will be very sad.  Because Healey’s story is tightly constructed, believably narrated, and affecting in its depiction of a person’s slide into Alzheimer’s.

Maud is convinced that her friend Elizabeth is missing.  She’s absolutely positive of it.  And she is determined to prove it.  Unfortunately, Maud is aware that she has a little problem with her memory, and that she sometimes gets things mixed up.  All the same she remains convinced that Elizabeth has vanished.  The past becomes clearer to her than the present as time goes on, and she relives the disappearance of her older sister, Sukey, in 1946.  We go back and forth between what Maud remembers (or thinks she remembers), and the muddled present, where Maud’s transition from one moment to the next is unpredictable and unsure.

As far as the mystery from the past goes, clues are dropped here and there, but it’s nearly impossible to separate fact from fiction with Maud’s narrative voice.  As a reader you get just as frustrated and sad as she does, and it’s incredibly effective (and affecting!) The ending is very fitting and very poignant.  The mystery is great, but this is also a novel about aging, and how the elderly are regarded in our culture.  The relationship between aging mothers and grown daughters is examined in particular, and it’s just as affecting as Maud’s narration.

Now I sort of understand that coy smile the patron gave me.  Elizabeth Is Missing is a novel you have to experience.  Part of the enjoyment is the immersion in Maud’s fuzzy world.  Or perhaps “enjoyment” is the wrong word.  As I said, it’s very sad at points, as well as frustrating and confusing.  However, you come away with the idea that that’s just how Healey wants you to feel.

For readalikes, I’d suggest you try Rosamund Lupton’s Sister or What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty.  Still Alice by Lisa Genova, about a Harvard professor with early onset Alzheimer’s, might be good if you particularly enjoyed the exploration of living with Alzheimer’s.  If you enjoyed more suspense and a bit of a thriller atmosphere,  Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson might be a good choice.  Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch might appeal to those who like the setting of WWII England as well as intricate storylines with characters’ lives intersecting in many different ways.  On that same note, The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton might also be enjoyable.



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