There are three things you should know about Elsie. The first thing is that she’s my best friend. The second is that she always knows what to say to make me feel better. And the third thing...might take a bit more explaining.
Eighty-four-year-old Florence has fallen in her flat at Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly. As she waits to be rescued, she thinks about her friend Elsie and wonders if a terrible secret from their past is about to come to light. If the charming new resident is who he claims to be, why does he look exactly like a man who died sixty years ago?
From the acclaimed, bestselling author of The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, Three Things About Elsie “breathes with suspense, providing along the way piercing, poetic descriptions, countless tiny mysteries, and breathtaking little reveals...a rich portrait of old age and friendship stretched over a fascinating frame” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review). This is an “amusing and heartbreaking” (Publishers Weekly) story about forever friends on the twisting path of life who come to understand how the fine threads of humanity connect us all.
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Read an Excerpt
Three Things About Elsie
There’s all manner of nonsense under that sideboard.
It’s amazing what falls behind furniture when your back is turned. I’d never have noticed if I hadn’t been lying here, but now I have, I can’t stop staring. They don’t make a job of it, the cleaners. They’re all headphones and aerosol cans. Some of them even switch the television on while they’re working. Never ask. I watch from a corner of the room and point things out, and they glance sideways and hoover around my feet. “Let them get on with it,” Elsie says. “Enjoy being a lady of leisure, Florence.” It’s not in my nature to be leisurely, though. Elsie’s more of a sitter, and I’ve always been a doer. It’s why we get on so well.
Occasionally, you see the same one twice. There’s a girl comes on a Thursday. Or it might be a Tuesday. I know it’s a day beginning with a T. Dark hair, blue eyes. One hand on the vacuum cleaner, the other pressing a mobile telephone to her ear. She’s always laughing down that telephone. Pretty laugh. The kind of laugh that makes you want to join in, except I can’t tell a word she’s saying. I think she might be German. When I went to the shop near the main gates, they had a box of shortbread. MADE IN GERMANY, it said on the back, and so I bought it, because I thought it might remind her of home. We could have it with a cup of tea, I thought, break the ice a bit. Get to know each other. I mentioned it, but she was so busy talking down that telephone and the front door banged shut when I was halfway through a sentence. I expect she was in a rush. That’s the trouble, isn’t it, everyone is in a rush. We can have them another time, when I get over this fall. No harm done, because they’re still in the packet.
She might be the one to find me. The German girl. She’ll forget about her telephone as soon as she realizes. It will fall to the floor, but she’ll ignore it and kneel down on the carpet next to me. As she leans forward, her hair will fall into her face, and she’ll have to brush it back behind her ear. Her hands will be warm and kind, and her fingers will wrap around mine.
“Are you all right, Florence? What have you done to yourself?”
“Not to worry, I’ll be fine,” I’ll say. “I don’t want you fretting.”
We will wait for the ambulance, and while we are waiting, she’ll ask me how I fell, how it all happened, and I will hesitate and look away. I’m not even sure what I’ll tell her. I remember the newsreader smiling at me and shuffling her papers, and I remember the silence when I switched off the television. There is a special kind of silence when you live alone. It hangs around, waiting for you to find it. You try to cover it up with all sorts of other noises, but it’s always there, at the end of everything else, expecting you. Or perhaps you just listen to it with different ears. I heard a noise, perhaps. Or a voice? I’m trying to decide what made me fall to begin with, but the only thing I remember is opening my eyes and being somewhere I knew I shouldn’t be.
The ambulancemen will get here, and the German girl will be relieved, and all the worry will empty out of her eyes, because you assume once a uniform arrives, everything will be fine. It isn’t always the way, of course. I know that more than anybody. One of the men will push back the furniture, and the other will put a little mask on my face. The pieces of elastic won’t stay behind my ears, and there’ll be such a fuss made. They’ll strap me into a chair, one of those with a seat belt on it, and they’ll put a blue blanket over me, and the German girl will make a big point about making sure it’s straight.
“Are you all right, Florence? Is there anything else you need?”
When we get outside, the cold will pinch at my nose and my ears, and my eyes will start to water.
“Soon have you there, Flo. You hang tight, Flo,” the ambulancemen will say, and I won’t mind that they call me Flo, because they have kind eyes.
They will lift me up and carry me down the outside steps, and as they do, I will look out over the town, at the liquid ink of the night and the lights that shine from other people’s lives, and it will seem as though I’m flying.
And I will feel as light as air.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Three Things About Elsie includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Eighty-four-year-old Florence has fallen in her flat at Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly. As she waits to be rescued, she thinks about her best friend, Elsie, and wonders if a terrible secret from their past is about to come to light. If the charming new resident is who he claims to be, why does he look exactly like a man who died sixty years ago?
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. Why do you think author Joanna Cannon decided to set the novel in a nursing home?
2. On page 63, Florence says, “I needed someone to hold my worrying for me.” How does Elsie play this role for her?
3. The act of naming and renaming things is a recurring theme in the novel. Why do you think this is significant?
4. Did Florence’s failing memory change your understanding of events at Cherry Tree? Does it make her a less reliable narrator? Why or why not?
5. “Simon wondered where his life ended and their life began, and how we could all be stitched so tightly together, yet the threads between everybody still go unnoticed” (page 124). How does this idea of the bonds between humanity play out throughout the novel?
6. “‘You’ve got to find forgiveness, Florence,’ said Elsie. ‘You find it so easily in other people, why do you struggle so much to find it in yourself?’” (page 334). Why do you think Florence struggles to forgive herself for the past?
7. Consider the role of time in novel, especially Florence’s idea of a “long second”—when time seems to hesitate just long enough to give you a chance to make the right decision. Have you experienced any “long seconds” in your life?
8. Florence and Simon both repeat throughout the novel that they have lived very ordinary lives. Do you think this is the case? How do you think ordinary versus extraordinary is measured?
9. “Sometimes, a name is the only thing we can leave behind,” Florence says on page 103. Do you think this is true? What else do you think Florence will leave behind?
10. Did the third thing about Elsie come as a surprise to you? Why or why not?
11. What do you think makes Florence ultimately realize that she has lived an extraordinary life, in the end?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Take turns using three things to describe the members of your book club the way Florence describes Elsie.
2. Read Joanna Cannon’s first novel, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep. Do you notice any recurring themes between the two books?