When I first saw the description of the book, How Not to Die Alone, by Richard Roper, I have to admit I had ambivalent feelings. The bare bones of the plot are that our protagonist, Andrew, works for a branch of the English government, taking care of the burials and funerals of people who have died without heirs or friends or family, and while everyone at his workplace believes he goes home to a wife and family, the truth is that he’s living by himself in a miserable flat, but all this changes when he meets Peggy, a woman who starts working with him and who sets him on the path to a new life.
What I hoped this book would be: a warm, touching book, kind of like The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, in which a lonely person steps out of his self-imposed isolation and begins to find a place in the world.
What I feared this book would be: a manic pixie dream girl comes and, through her loving but deeply unconventional ways, helps some obnoxious guy who’s never put any effort into being a good person live life to the fullest.
Having read the book, I’m happy to report that it was much closer to my hopes than my fears. Andrew comes across, at the beginning of the book, as something of a loser, someone who’s boxed himself into a narrow life because he doesn’t want anything more, but we see early on that he has a good heart. He attends the funerals of the unfortunate souls who’ve died alone and without any friends or family, and he approaches the difficult part of his job, entering the homes of those people to look for any signs that there might be money for a funeral or any other human beings who might want to know this person has died, and who might mourn the person’s death, with grace and kindness. Frankly, it’s not a job I think I could do, and that Andrew (and the rest of the people in his department) manages to do it at all, and stay sane in the process, is pretty impressive to me.
Peggy, the woman who changes his life, might seem at first like a candidate for manic pixie dream girl: she’s lively, she curses, she approaches Andrew and the job with warmth and enthusiasm, she drinks and she’s not shy about telling people where to go. However, she’s got a complicated life of her own, including a husband who’s got a drinking problem, and two daughters who mean the world to her. She cares about Andrew, and he comes to care about her, but she’s not here to fix his world. And in fact, at a critical point in the story, she tells him he can’t expect someone else to save him; he has to do it for himself.
Andrew didn’t originally create a wife and children, and a household, out of thin air for the fun of it (Andrew does very few things for the fun of it). He was in an interview, and he made up a story on the spot, never dreaming he was going to have to live with that story for the rest of his time on the job, inventing increasingly elaborate stories about how he met his wife, what his children are like, and why nobody in the office has ever met them. He knows throughout that this isn’t sustainable; sooner or later people are going to find out the truth, but the longer he manages to keep the story going, the harder it’s going to be, in the end, to admit to reality. And when his supervisor, as a team building effort, institutes a program where people give dinner parties in their homes, Andrew knows his days are numbered.
His brother-in-law is blackmailing him about an inheritance, there are rumors of upcoming layoffs in the department, Peggy’s having difficulties with her marriage, and floating in the background are questions about how Andrew got to be this person in the first place and why he reacts so painfully to the sound of his beloved Ella Fitzgerald singing “Blue Moon,” which is explained late in the book (and when you find out and realize what his brother-in-law is referring to throughout his nasty attacks on Andrew, it’s a painful, poignant moment). Even in the job itself, which could seem really depressing, there are moments of joy, including Andrew and Peggy tracking down a former lover of one of the deceaseds, and one funeral at least that feels like a real celebration of a life and not merely a routine between the vicar and Andrew as the sole mourner.
In the end, How Not to Die Alone is a warm, goodhearted book, a reminder that it’s almost never too late to start living.