First published in 2016
My rating: 4 out of 5
The Short Of It:
This was a heartfelt, easy read and I thoroughly enjoyed it. While it did deal with a very serious topic -- early-onset Alzheimer's -- it was well-balanced with lighthearted moments and an overarching message about the power of love.
The Long Of It:
I've read a lot of heavy stuff lately, and Sally Hepworth's "The Things We Keep" was a refreshingly pleasant, easy novel. I just felt happy reading it, even though both the protagonists are going through extremely difficult things.
Anna is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease at just 38 and moves into an upscale residential care facility, Rosalind House, where she meets Luke, a kind, intelligent -- and sexy -- man suffering from a different form of dementia. The facility's two young'uns form a fast bond that soon becomes more than friendship, and the relationship brings them both joy even as their diseases rapidly progress -- until a tragic event makes their families and the facility determined to keep Luke and Anna separated.
Several months into the future, we meet Eve and her adorable 7-year-old daughter Clementine, a lovable pair with struggles all their own: Eve's investment banker husband committed suicide after he was caught running a Ponzi scheme. Eve can deal with her drastically reduced circumstances and the ostracism by her former friends, but she's determined to keep things as stable for Clementine as possible. To keep Clem in her current school district, Eve takes a job as chef (and, unexpectedly, housekeeper) at Rosalind House. There she meets Anna and Luke, both now in the advanced stages of their dementia, as well as the other sweet and cantankerous elderly residents. And of course, spunky Clementine charms the pants off all of them even while she's coping with kids at school saying cruel things about her dad and coming to terms, in her own way, with her father's death.
The story is told in alternating segments, narrated by Anna over a year ago at the start of her disease, and told by Eve and Clementine in present day. As Anna's Alzheimer's progresses her passages are increasingly sad and difficult to read, and by the time Eve begins work at Rosalind House it's hard to believe Anna's the same feisty adrenaline-junkie paramedic we met in the first chapter. And, though not nearly as hard-hitting as the well-known "Still Alice" by Lisa Genova, which deals with the same subject matter, I think Hepworth did a good job conveying the horrors Alzheimer's disease inflicts on both the patients and their families.
While the story deals with several difficult topics -- dementia, loss of power to convey ones wishes, the question of when a life is no longer worth living, suicide, grief, school bullying -- it is told with an ultimately positive, warmhearted air. The themes of making the best of a bad situation, helping those in need, friendship, family, kindness, and abiding love trump the sad stuff to leave readers closing the cover on a satisfying ending. I'll plan to pick up Hepworth's previous book, "The Secrets of Midwives," next time I'm craving some easy, enjoyable women's fiction.