Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon review

Hi everyone! I’m still ploughing through the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist (whether I can get to them all before the winner is announced is yet to be seen), and this time I’m reviewing Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon. Our narrator is 84 year old Florence Claybourne, who has fallen in her flat within Cherry Tree Residential Home. She waits for someone to find and help her, hopefully her best friend Elsie, and also reminisces about the events of the last few months. A new resident, Gabriel Price, arrived at the home. However, Florence believes he isn’t Gabriel but a man called Ronnie Butler – who drowned 60 years ago. While uncovering the truth about this man, we also delve into Florence’s past.

Cannon’s writing is very witty and there were a few one-liners which made me smile. The character of Florence in particular is well-written. She can be quite muddled and yet determined to expose the truth, and I found her endearing. You are wishing her along, hoping she’ll remember what happened in the past. An unintentionally funny, yet tragic character, Florence is the heart of this novel and the main positive for me. Her friendships with Elsie and Jack, a fellow resident of the home, are sweet, and those two are a nice foil to Florence.

However I did have a couple of issues. The first one is the pacing. At over 400 pages, I felt the novel was a little bit too long, as I found the first two thirds to drag. They seemed quite repetitive and while those sections helped to build up the relationships, they added little to the plot. It is only when we reach the last third that the mystery and intrigue really ramps up. I think this is partly due to pacing issues but also because the plot is quite predictable. I guessed a lot of the major plot points early on, and it became frustrating when Cannon seemed to drag the story out. At moments I wanted to skip ahead as I found some chapters to be quite superfluous and would not have missed them.

Another minor issue I had was to do with the main theme of the novel. Now, the theme is very positive and uplifting, that no matter how small and insignificant you may feel, you will have an impact on many people throughout your life. But Cannon seems to clobber you over the head with this idea constantly, just in case you never picked up the obvious references beforehand. Even the employees of Cherry Tree, such as Miss Ambrose and Handy Simon, articulate this idea. It feels as though Cannon wants to keep reminding you of the book’s message, but by the end I felt like she was treating her reader as a bit of an idiot, who needs to be told over and over the theme.

Despite my problems, Three Things About Elsie isn’t a bad book. It was a fun, cosy romp with likeable characters and an interesting premise. It is easy to see why a lot of people love it. However, I would be surprised if this made it to the shortlist, considering the competition this year. Ultimately I think the best way to describe Three Things About Elsie is similar to how I would describe a Battenberg cake. It’s lovely and you enjoy yourself whilst in the middle, but the following week you’ll have forgotten about it.

Three Things About Elsie is published by Borough Press and you can find more information here.

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