If The Office (British version) and the smash hit novel Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine had a book baby, it would be How Not to Die Alone, a debut novel from English writer Richard Roper.
Though the novel is not perfect (as many deem Eleanor Oliphant to be), it is instantly engaging, inviting us as readers along for a quirky, offbeat, and ultimately heart-wrenching and hopeful ride. The heartbeat of the novel is Andrew Smith, a sympathetic companion with whom to spend a few hours.
We meet Andrew at a funeral he is attending for his work. That is his work—or a part of it. Andrew, a quiet, kind, single man works for the Death Administration, a British government job that involves rooting through the homes of dead people who have no apparent next of kin, and looking under beds and through rubbish bins for scraps of contact information. Perhaps there is an old Christmas card with a phone number or address or even a name to contact. Often these dead people have been found days after their demise, which means Andrew often must don a face mask sprayed with cologne to offset the stench of the recently removed decaying body. (I would have quit on my first day.)
Andrew is good at it, awful though his job is. He is a tender-hearted guy with an innate instinct to call all God’s creatures valuable—valuable enough to attend their funerals even if he is the only one there besides the clergy. It is not a mandatory job for him to go to these lonely people’s funerals; he wants to dignify their lives by showing up for them.
The truth is Andrew understands loneliness and estrangement all too well. For reasons we don’t understand until well into the book, he lives alone and the only friends he has are blokes on an online chat group about toy trains.
His coworkers are not exactly kindred spirits, which will be relatable to many who work in cubicles all day with people who rub them the wrong way. And there is a workplace secret that keeps Andrew and his coworkers even more separate: Andrew, seriously lacking in social confidence, accidentally falls into a giant lie on his first day—that he has a wife and two children at home—and he has no idea how to get out of. He perpetuates the lie for years, making up details about his fake family to appease the curiosity of his boss and coworkers. But when his boss (a funny, dreadful character who made me cringe and laugh in equal parts) suddenly wants everyone to bond over shared meals at each other’s homes, Andrew is in a serious pickle.
Adding to the problem is Andrew’s new coworker, Peggy, a compassionate and yes, kindred soul who is drawn to bereft Andrew and him to her. She is also married to an abusive husband, which complicates everything. Christian readers may find it hard to know what outcome to root for in this situation.
We root for Andrew to come clean with his secret and return to the land of the living. He’s been hiding for years, and his lies seem almost insurmountable. And he must confront the traumas of his past before moving forward. How and why he does this will keep the pages turning until the end.
At its core, this is a book about loneliness, grief, and how vital human connection is. It’s about overcoming the pain of the past and emerging from the shadows into the light of truth and growth. As we cheer for Andrew to find love and liberty, we consider anew the things that haunt us and hold us back. Reading How Not to Die Alone reminds us we are not so different from our neighbors after all. As The New York Times Book Review said of this book, “Roper illuminates Andrew’s interior life to reveal not what an odd duck he is, but what odd ducks we all are.” (Penguin Random House)