“The Great Unexpected: A Novel” by Dan Mooney. New York: Park Row Books, 2019. 368 pages, $15.99 (paperback).
There are many books that come across my shelf these days that I simply sigh at and read anyway. Sometimes, I can’t make it through them to actually give a review. Others, I know that the review would not be the nicest, and so I simply choose not to write one. (Hey, what I may not like may be another person’s favorite book ever.) “The Great Unexpected” was a book that at first I was generally unsure about. However, in an odd mood, the description appealed to me, and I sat down, curious what a “curmudgeon and his eccentric new roommate” could get into that would make for a whole novel.
This story is mostly about Joel (a curmudgeon) and his life in the nursing home. He isn’t happy. Who would like to be told when to eat, locked in their rooms at night to sleep and be made to take pills under supervision? Probably very few people. He is fed up and planning a way out when Frank, the soap opera actor and eccentric roommate, comes into the picture. Frank turns the nursing home upside down with his optimistic character, and, in contrast to Joel, the two have such hilarious dialogue and witty banter that I was laughing throughout the novel. Surprisingly, they become friends, and Joel confides in him about his plans and together they try to figure out the perfect escape.
In the beginning, Joel is largely grumpy and, after his roommate in the beginning passes away, he begins lashing out and having a harder time dealing with things. When Joel quickly is given another person to room with, he instantly finds disdain for them. In a moment of weakness, Joel and Frank manage to bond and, from this unlikely bond, an even more unlikely friendship blossoms. Between one grumpy old man and one eccentric over-the-top man, the two seem to find a balance together.
Frank is able to see the things that Joel cannot. As a newcomer to the home, he looks at it as an opportunity to gain friends. The change in each of them is gradual, but together they make each other a better person. Their capers, crazy ideas and escapes tend to get them in trouble, but overall it makes for a book that will have you laughing and hoping you are that spry when you are in your seventies. It also reminds you that the older folks that so often get ignored are people, too.
This book had me in tears. So much so, in fact, that I had to set the book down, cry a bit and then finish the last 20 pages or so. Overall, it is lovely, sad, hopeful and joyful. It reminds you about what is precious in life, and also shows us how easy it is to trap ourselves in our minds and our decisions. If you’re stubborn, it also reminds you that you might want to question why you are being so darn stubborn. “The Great Unexpected” speaks to unexpected friendships, unexpected moments and the great unexpected truth of life – which is that joy can be found in so many places if you simply look. I believe it also is a reminder to us to care for our elderly, and to listen to what they are truly saying.
Perhaps that is one of the most precious things about this book. It is so easy to say that you do not have time for visiting or doing something important. It’s also easy to keep visiting someone out of obligation, but to lose any connection to them. We tend to write off what they are saying and we may not listen to what they are doing. And as Joel’s daughter does more than once, we might tell them they are acting childish. We forget that they are probably also being treated like children. Dignity is an important concept we leave behind sometimes.
Family can also be left behind. So remember, whether you are young or old, that those family connections are important. If you have just lost touch, it hurts nothing to reach out again and try to rebuild relationships or figure out what is going on in each other’s lives. You never know, you might save them from themselves.
While at one point, the pace did seem to drag just a little bit, every moment is worth it. From the bar/club to the castle and to the nursing home, there is enough to keep you rolling in laughter between the moments of clarity. It is also a collection of memories worth noting, leading to that final escape they were planning. Mooney’s writing captures a mix of the darkness and the humor. It reminds us that we can always find the light.
Spoiler Alert – The escape they are planning? It is Joel’s suicide, the thing he has decided he wants to do in his unhappy state, with a dark cloud following him around. This book focuses largely on mental health of the elderly. Once you understand this, the book takes quite a turn, and yet it never loses its humor. Frank and Joel’s friendship is so key to the lessons learned in this book. Frank’s ultimate plan for Joel will have you in tears. – End Spoiler Alert.
Mooney is the author of “Me, Myself and Them,” as well as his latest, “The Great Unexpected,” also titled previously “A Rock and a High Place.” Mooney writes about mental health issues, especially in men. He is an air traffic controller, amateur filmmaker and a friend to cats! His first piece of fiction was for a child-operated newspaper at 10. He never quit. He lives in Ireland. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter @Danielmoonbags.
– Reviewed by Fallon Willoughby, first-year experience instructor, Southcentral Kentucky Community & Technical College.