If you’re lucky, you’ll meet someone who becomes a lifelong friend for 50 years or more. But while an encounter with a kindred soul in your 70s won’t lead to a 50-year friendship, perhaps it can provide a reason to believe that life still has pleasures to offer. That’s the insight that drives The Great Unexpected, Irish novelist Dan Mooney’s follow-up to his debut, Me, Myself and Them. Another of the book’s insights—not new, but timely in this day of polarization—is that two people of disparate backgrounds can forge the unlikeliest friendship.
And what two fellows could seemingly be less alike than Joel Monroe and Frank de Selby? Joel owned a garage before he and Lucey, his beloved wife of 49 years, moved into the Hilltop Nursing Home. Lucey had brightened their room with flowers and baby pictures of their daughter, Eva. But ever since Lucey died, Joel has been morose and distant. He is convinced that the only way out of his misery is to commit suicide.
After a second roommate dies, the home moves Frank de Selby into Joel’s room. A former soap opera actor who wears colorful silk scarves, Frank has “a youthfulness about him, a certain quality of energy and vitality that seemed to make a lie of all the wrinkles.” Soon, Joel and Frank are sharing painful secrets, concocting plans to help Joel kill himself and breaking out of the home to go to pubs—escapes that infuriate not only the head nurse known as “the Rhino” but also Eva, who insists that Joel be confined to the home for his own safety.
The Great Unexpected often plays like a sitcom, but the novel also captures the heartache of elderly people realizing that they are no longer in charge of their lives. Yet it offers a glimmer of hope. In one of their late-night escapades, Joel and Frank sneak into an old theater where Frank used to perform: “Another aging monument that someone had once loved allowed to fall to ruin because not enough people cared.” The parallel between that theater and a senior’s life is obvious. With a little help, good days may lie ahead, so maybe don’t get out the wrecking ball just yet.