I wanted to fight for Joel Monroe and Frank (Adams) de Selby. I wanted to defend them, to protect them, to do whatever I could to give them the chance to live their final years, months, days with dignity and grace.
I still want to do all that.
That’s the power of Dan Mooney’s The Great Unexpected.
You eyes will be opened, your mind will be switched on, and your heart will warm and break at the same time.
Joel Monroe lives in a nursing home called Hilltop. He moved there with his wife, and she died a few years before the story begins. Mourning, but unwilling to show it, Joel has become a little removed from the other residents, who generally view him with sadness and skepticism. Frank de Selby, a stage name, is a former actor who becomes Joel’s roommate, much to Joel’s chagrin. The friendship between Joel and Frank is not easy to come by. The staid and straight-laced Joel is more or less alarmed by the jesting and unconventional Frank.
The two elderly men share secrets, though, because they’re stuck together and it seems impossible not to. Joel wants to die, on his terms and his time, and Frank is gay.
Impressed that Joel hardly flinches at his sexuality, Frank tries hard not to flinch at Joel’s wish, and even promises to help him find a meaningful and good way to go. In the meantime, they become truer friends than either has had.
To say more about the story lines would be to spoil things and if I spoil the book, you might not read it. And you should read it.
So I will move on to other related things…
Plot – Mooney’s plot in this novel is fantastic. It’s something I’ve never read before and something that made me cry, made me laugh, made me ache, and made me heal. It’s hard to elicit those four things in such equal measure. Two old men, looking back on what’s happened and fearing what’s ahead… it’s not the most common plot and maybe that makes this book all the more special.
Setting – The setting of this book is not clearly defined, beyond the Hilltop Nursing Home. There’s a castle and the characters remind me of British things so I picture it in England. I think Mooney deserves full points here for not clearly defining the setting beyond the confines of the nursing home, or prison as Joel calls it, because the home and what it means are one of the central characters. Not part of the setting.
Characters – The characters in Mooney’s novel are vivid and unique. Even nurses and residents who appear a handful times have a story and their stories are powerful. Joel and Frank could be your grandfathers. Una and Mrs. Klein could be your smiling, patient grandmothers. Mighty Jim, lost in his mind as he is, delivers words of wisdom in ways that hit home. Nurses Liam, Angelica, and Karl are devoted to the people in their care and their lives outside the walls say why.
Point of View – The Great Unexpected is Joel Monroe’s story. He is central to all that happens. I experienced everything through his perspective. And it is a good perspective. He reminded me of my grandfather, proud and yet quietly devoted. He could surprise me with warmth and laughter. And he was so afraid of getting old and losing himself.
Theme – The theme of Mooney’s story is the elderly. It is what they have lived and what they will live. It is the way the elderly can be forgotten by society, can be tucked away and called ‘safe’ without regard for their wants. It is how even the best meaning people can have the best intentions and still, inadvertently, ignore the ones who gave them life – as parents and grandparents or as the generation before.
Symbolism – The symbolism in Mooney’s story is stark and yet vivid. Una wears Joel’s wife’s clothes, and Joel tries not to see. Nurse Liam wears a Pride flag pin, and thanks Frank with quiet simplicity. Frank has two personas, Adams and de Selby, and can be two different people entirely when certain situations arise. And Joel, the symbolism in his existence is that he begins the story unshaven and nearly always in his pajamas… and he ends the story in dark suits accented by Frank’s vibrant silk scarves.
Conflict – The conflict in The Great Unexpected is life vs. death. No one at Hilltop is unaware that death is an ever looming specter. Some of them would give anything to cling to life, some accept that they are alive and that they will be dead, and some want to control the end and die on their own terms. It’s a conflict common in literature, but it’s made more important in the context of the elderly and nursing homes.
This is, in short, the best book I’ve read so far this year. It’s one of the most powerful books I’ve read in a very long time. It’s important and it’s good. I hope you’ll consider reading it and let me know what you think.
And if you’ve got any other elder-centric books to recommend, please let me know in the comments!
I received a copy of The Great Unexpected through NetGalley and Harlequin – Park Row in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.