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Dead Ernest: What goes on behind closed doors...? Kindle Edition
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The story in itself is not unusual; quite ordinary people live quite ordinary lives, and their lives change by events some of which they have a certain control over, while others simply happen without them contributing actively to them. This ordinariness makes the story and character development very credible; one can imagine to acting in a similar way in the place of the characters (at least I can).
You can read this book either just for entertainment, enjoying the story and wanting to know what will happen next (there is drama, there is romance), or you can accept the lessons taught - never in a school-teacherish manner, but simply by what the characters have to deal and cope with in their lives, in both past and present.
Ernest is the husband of Annie; when we first hear of him in the book, he has just died of a heart attack outside a fish and chip shop (what WAS he doing in front of the chippie? This is one mystery that remains unsolved!).
But we meet him later on as a younger man in the book, when Annie tells the story of her life - which is invariably also the story of her marriage of 60 years) - to Andrew, the vicar who is asked to visit her by her son Billy. In spite of Annie not being a churchgoer or a particularly religious person at all, a friendship develops between her and Andrew, and she starts telling him her story.
Shortly after these regular visits have started, Billy's daughter Ophelia, Annie's only grandchild, comes to see her grandmother, also originally sent there by Billy.
Things between Annie, Andrew and Ophelia turn out rather different from what Billy imagined when he initiated these visits, and the lives of all three of them are changed by what they learn about each other and about themselves.
As I said, nothing in this book is unrealistic. People behave like humans do; Annie does not willingly play the role of grieving widow everybody seems to expect her to be, Ophelia is not her parents' dream-daughter, and Andrew is not quite the man of god he feels he should be.
Currently, I am reading her 2nd novel, and enjoying it just as much, although the two of them are very different in both story and "message".
Annie's son Billy worries about his mother's reactions after the death of his father. And no doubt, some of her behaviour does seem rather odd; and would probably by most people be ascribed to shock, grief or dementia (or all three).
"Death, it would seem, muddled up all the rules of normal behaviour." (quote from Ch.1)
The two people who manage to see past the oddities and show genuine interest in Annie as a person, are the local vicar, Andrew, and Annie's granddaughter, Ophelia. Talking to Andrew, Annie gets a chance to look back on her life and tell her story; while the arrival of Ophelia helps her not to get too stuck in the past.
The main focus of the novel is not really ageing and death, but relationships. I think that Frances Garrood manages quite well to spotlight not only the changes taken place in society over the past seventy years or so (in what we regard as "normal" when it comes to love, relationships and marriage) but also a more timeless discrepancy between our romantic ideals vs real life.
Frustrated by Andrew's refusal to tell him anything about his visits with Annie, Billy sends his daughter, Ophelia, for a short visit with her—hoping she will do what Andrew will not. Resistant to the idea of staying with the grandmother she barely knows, Ophelia still agrees to go, and is pleasantly surprised when she and Annie hit it off. Her decision to stay longer is only partly due to Annie, however... it's also because she feels drawn to Andrew.
In the weeks that follow, the lives of Annie, Andrew, and Ophelia will be marked by acceptance, heartache, and the promise of a new beginning... and it's all thanks to the sudden death of Ernest.
I was pleasantly surprised at just how much I enjoyed reading Dead Ernest. I expected to like it, of course, but I suppose I didn't expect to feel so invested in these characters so quickly. I was immediately drawn in by Annie, needing to understand why she reacted the way she did to Ernest's death—she seemed more concerned about why he was in a certain area when he died than the fact that he was dead. I was completely engrossed in the story of her life with Ernest—their path to marriage came about in a way I didn't expect, and it definitely affected the their life together.
The present-day Annie was much different than the Annie of the past, and I really liked her! She had a quirky sense of humor and a defiant streak that was so fun to read. The Annie of the past was full of sadness and weary resignation, and my heart went out to her so often. It made me want to reach into the book and smack Ernest for being so awful to her.
My second favorite character was Andrew. His marital unhappiness echoed that of Annie's, to a certain degree, and it didn't take long for me to decide I did not like his wife, Janet, at all. I wasn't surprised by his immediate attraction to Ophelia, and it was interesting to see how it played out.
Ophelia was an unexpected delight, and she had a lot of common with Annie. I loved the easy closeness they shared, and (surprise, surprise) I quickly found myself disliking her parents for the way they treated her and for causing her to expect their disappointment in all things. I could easily understand why she was attracted so strongly to Andrew, and even though it was problematic, I was really rooting for them as a couple.
In one way or another, all of the main players in this book were afflicted with unhappiness, and often felt lonely—and I think that's something we can all identify with in our own lives. Despite that, the book isn't weighed down with an abundance of these negative emotions. Many lighthearted moments are scattered through the story, as well, giving a much-needed bit of comic relief that had me laughing out loud many times.
I'm glad I had the opportunity to read Dead Ernest, and I doubt I will forget these characters anytime soon.
Rating: 3.5 stars
I received an advance review copy of this book courtesy of Sapere Books.