The Things We Keep is about a woman (Anna) with early-onset Alzheimer's disease - very early. She is only 38 when the disease manifests itself and dissolves memories, the most recent first, and turns a vibrant young women into a shell of her former self.
Soon after her diagnosis Anna leaves her husband and checks herself into an assisted-living facility (Rosalind House), where she will live out the rest of her days. At 38, while she's still lucid, she makes this life-altering decisions.
The book is interspersed with Anna's viewpoint, and it starts with when she checks in - 15 months from present day. Anna's story alternates with Eve's story - the cook at Rosalind House. Her husband killed himself after admitting he was instrumental in a huge ponzi scheme, leaving Eve and her young daughter to fend for themselves, with no money and little dignity. Her daughter Clementine also has a point of view in the book.
It's the way Hepworth weaves the stories and plot-lines together, the various and monumentally different points of view, that is laudable. Somehow she manages to get into the head of a bereaved and angry young widow, a woman who is losing her mind, and a 7 year-old girl. That in itself is an amazing feat. When all the plot-lines join in the end, I was a bit confused, but once I went back and pieced them all together, it made sense.
I would recommend this book to anyone who works with dementia patients. Anna becomes intimately involved with a fellow resident whose name she can never remember, so she calls him "Young Guy." They love each other. It's obvious to the reader, and to Eve, but not to the folks in charge. To me, the message of this book, the thing we keep, is our ability to love and be loved.
Here are a few lines to whet your appetite:
Anna's points of view:
"'Put this on," Dad says, handing me a pair of blue doo-dahs for my legs. His cheeks are flushed, and that's when I realize I'm naked, apart from a white sheet. He digs back into my closet and pulls out a pair of under-things. "And this. I'll be in the dining room."
I don't move. I'm perfectly happy where I am. . . .
He leaves and I look at the things in my lap. With a strange, almost scientific aware, I realize I have no idea what to do with them. The blue things go on my legs--I know that much. But there are three holes, two small and one large, as well as a long thing with silver teeth and a big silver circle."
In another scene, near the end of the book, her brother -- who has been her primary caretaker -- takes her to see a doctor. He does all the talking, even though the doctor addresses Anna.
"Dr. Li glances at me, presumably to see how much I am taking in. The answer is all of it. Every word.
"I'm sorry," I say. I concentrate on my words to make sure this comes out right. "It sounds horrible, what you said. I know I'm . . . not getting things right anymore, I'm getting confused and doing strange things. But I'm . . ." I pause to wipe my face. "I'm still here. It's just -- you have to look a little longer and harder to find me."
Our of the corner of my eye, I notice the doctor push her chair back, trying to pretend she's not there. Jack slides forward in his chair and looks at me. And for the first time since I checked into that place with the old people, maybe for the first time since I was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, Jack sees me."
Read this book. You won't be disappointed.