A solitary man learns to embrace his fears and live a bigger life
Touching story of a solitary man in his 40s who learns to change and embrace what he used to fear - closeness, companionship, people.
How Not to Die Alone, Richard Roper
Genre: General Fiction
Published 2019, 321 pages
“Andrew took a sip of lager and made a note to remind himself that his instincts – much like burgers bought from rest-stop vans and people who started sentences with “I’ll be honest with you” – were not to be trusted.”
This is one of those stories that grew on me the further along I got. It starts a bit slow with not much happening, introducing Andrew, in his 40s and working at a job that seems to be the only thing he’s qualified to do – going to the homes of people who died alone and searching for information about family or relatives, and even if they have money to pay for burial services. Many of the descriptions of the conditions of the homes and the sad story it tells about the person who lived there will make you glad to have your family and/or friends in your life.
Andrew is uncomfortable around people, he’s not good at small talk, and he’s awkward in social situations. He much prefers to be home listening to Ella Fitzgerald and admiring his model trains. That’s his sad life until Peggy comes to work and is paired with him to search houses. Very slowly they get to know each other and Andrew starts to open up. He realizes he feels good with her and actually finds himself smiling.
Their relationship becomes complicated when he starts to fall for her, not only because she’s married (unhappily, to an alcoholic husband), but because Peggy and his co-workers believe Andrew is married with two children.
“He hadn’t needed to mentally refer to his spreadsheet or desperately improvise something, instead he quite calmly volunteered this information about Steph (made-up daughter) without even thinking about it, as if it had come from his subconscious. The fact that the detail had appeared so easily left him deeply unsettled.”
Andrew has created a whole fictional life that sometimes he finds hard to separate from reality. At the risk of ruining his friendship and blossoming potential romance with Peggy, he reveals his secret to her. Now, how does he tell his co-workers the truth?
“He understood why Peggy was frustrated that he wasn’t simply going to come clean with everyone now that he’d revealed the truth to her, but what she perhaps hadn’t fully grasped was how potent the fantasy was, how tied to it he felt. It wasn’t something he could just walk away from.”
There’s a surprise revelation near the end that has been hinted at several times throughout the book. This story about death, lost love, loneliness, hope, and changing your life had believable characters that you felt you got to know. I certainly didn’t like all of them (Keith) and found some of them pathetic (Andrew’s boss) but Peggy’s strong personality and Andrew’s willingness to change his life, even while frightened in doing so, were all interesting.
If you like an unfolding story where people change, gentle humor, a British background (it’s set in London), and an ultimately feel-good story, you might enjoy this book. I feel like there would be much to discuss in a book club because of the varying personalities, the big lie that practically defines his life, the inclusion of sorrow and death, and ultimately hope.
photo by Terrie Purkey, Seattle, WA