- What: How Not to Die Alone
- Who: Richard Roper
- Pages: 323 pages, hard cover
- Genre: Contemporary fiction
- Published: 2019
- The lit: of 5 flames
I’m writing this review the morning after my best friend’s wedding. It was an evening filled with love, laughter, and anything but loneliness, which makes reminiscing on my latest read a little difficult. How is it possible, after witnessing such happiness between two people and among so many family and friends, for sadness and desolation to exist in the world?
The part of me not living on cloud nine after a beautiful wedding knows the reality. And that reality is what Richard Roper captures in his debut novel, How Not to Die Alone. It’s a lighthearted story of how fantasy can never match the real deal and how it’s never too late to get the life you’ve always wanted even if that’s outside your comfort zone. Although the title may sound like 2019’s most depressing book of the year, Roper succeeds in making it an absolute treat to read — laughs, loneliness, and all.
Andrew is the definition of what happens when one seemingly harmless and accidental lie spins totally out of control and you’re in no rush to correct its course. An early 40s man living a desolate life in London, Andrew works for the U.K.’s Death Administration Council, which means he cleans the homes and searches for family of the deceased who unfortunately die alone. It’s a grim job, but someone has to do it. For Andrew, this means confronting his biggest fear every day of his life.
See, Andrew has a lot in common with the dead patrons he works with. He lives alone in a depressing apartment and has no family or friends other than an estranged sister and his online buddies who share his obsession with model trains. But because of a fumble (the above-mentioned lie spinning out of control) during his job interview five years previously, Andrew must maintain a fantasy to his coworkers: the one that says he is a happily married man with two gorgeous children. He’s so good at pretending that the line between fact and fiction is quite blurred.
For better or worse, the lie is about to become undone when Peggy starts working at the Council. She’s funny, warmhearted, and the only person to show Andrew any ounce of friendship in years. Her presence and kindness force Andrew to confront the lie he’s been living and decide if his fantasy (and the social acceptance that comes with it) is worth the risk of losing the first real human interaction he’s had in over 20 years. He must also reflect on his painful past before realizing that moving on is even possible.
My first question when I finished this book was “How?” How is it possible for this sad of a story to be told in such a funny, charming, and quirky way? I mean this is a pretty morose plot. The only social interaction a guy has had in 20 years is with his lousy coworkers, with whom he barely speaks and who think he has a perfectly normal and happy life. Instead, he goes home to no one every single night. It’s him and his model trains. That’s it. Doesn’t that sound like the saddest story in the world?
At very few points, did I feel anguish or heartbreak though, and somehow, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. I don’t mean the joy that comes from respecting great writing. I mean sheer joy from smiling and laughing at what’s in front of me. Yes, I felt terrible for Andrew; you’d be a lousy human being not to. But Roper makes his story interesting, funny, and witty. Sometimes authors amaze me, and this one’s ability to convey a dichotomy of emotions does just that. Maybe his intent is to show your lowest points can and likely will get better or that there’s a bright spot to all of your darkest days. Whatever his rationale, he succeeds in making this a cheerful book.
Despite the ease and smiles that come from reading this book, it is burdened by some weird metaphors that will make you go “Huh?”
“Sitting on the train to work (wedged into the armrest by a man whose legs were spread so far apart Andrew could only assume he was performing some sort of interpretive dance about what a great guy he was), he found himself thinking back to his very first day in the office.” — How Not to Die Alone
That metaphor doesn’t quite register with me. And I’m one to fully understand the pitfalls of manspreading. Female New Yorkers know what I mean. This is just one example of how Roper tries a bit too hard in the funny or light-hearted arena. His writing already reaches past an array of emotions; it doesn’t need clever metaphors to go places.
Jillian Medoff from the New York Times notes some structural issues with this novel, as well as some unnecessary narrative. But her summary of her feelings matches mine:
“And yet, I loved this novel with my whole heart,” she writes in her review. “Why hire a technical guy who’s competent but flat when you can have the other guy — the one with the off-kilter insights and glorious humor, the one who makes your pulse race as you clock in each morning.”
(Maybe “off-kilter” is a positive twist on the weak metaphor writing.)
No, Roper doesn’t win Writer of the Year. But his book speaks to me, and I have a feeling it will speak to most people who pick it up. Loneliness is something we all fear. Realizing it in a very real character who we cheer for from start to finish not only touches us, but it makes us grateful for everything and everyone we have around us. I know it does for me.