December 3

ONC Book Review: The Secret Diary…

Are you looking for a holiday read?

Do you need a book to curl up with beside a roaring fire or with a cup of tea?

Or do you need a great gift idea for someone who could use a bit of holiday cheer or seasonal smile? 

We love books at AOS. We especially love books that not only tell stories but also make us laugh and sometimes cry. The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 ¼ Years Old does a bit of both. Hendrik’s story is a diary of his life in an assisted living facility, which means tepid food, daily gossip and constant financial restrictions. It’s also a story about friendship, flexibility and making the most of your life, at any age.

Hendrik wishes his fellow residents could be more positive, embrace the present (rather than constantly talking about the past) and generally stop viewing life as a glass half-empty (with a hole in the bottom).

But Hendrik himself has his own moments of doubt, misery, loneliness and fear, which he explores in his diary. The diary becomes a sort of therapy in itself, a place where Hendrik can express plainly and bluntly what he can’t say at the dinner table or over ginger cookies and tea. He writes about the physical manifestations of growing older. He writes about the limitations he faces as he loses balance, can no longer go for substantial walks and finds himself in need of (and resisting) adult diapers.

[You might also enjoy ONC Book Review: Gilead ]

In the midst of the everyday life of an 83 ¼ year old European gentleman on a modest pension, Hendrik begins developing his social circle, spurred on when a new lady moves into the building. The two form a friendship, and soon a small group of them have formed a club of sorts – The Old But Not Dead Club – for those among them who’d like to still adventure, explore and enjoy each other’s company outside the walls of their facility.

There are laugh-out-loud moments in Hendrik’s journal, and there are sad pages of writing that will break your heart, if not for you than for someone you love who is going through something similar. Hendrik is honest but tender in his account, willing to share the good and the bad, and ever-the-observant diarist of not only his life but the lives of the people he cares for (and some he doesn’t).

Much of Hendrik’s diary stood out, but here are 10 Things About The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 ¼ Years Old:

  1. This novel touches on euthanasia, the idea of the ‘right to die’ and what it feels like to consider one’s own death either by natural causes or otherwise. Be prepared if this is a touchy subject for you or a loved one.
  2. Hendrik is full of wisdom about life, which he gains more of as the year progresses. On page 244, as he is considering an upcoming adventure, Hendrik writes, “Something exciting to look forward to is crucial to keep up one’s zest for life.” We couldn’t agree more, at any age!
  3. As Americans, we often have the idea that other countries are doing just about everything better. French women are slimmer and chicer. Canadians are enjoying free, unfettered health care. The list goes on. Hendrik’s diary sheds light on and explores what it’s like to age in Europe (and it’s not as glamorous as it may sound). On page 248, Hendrik writes, “We live in one of the richest countries in the world, but again and again the message is, Your care is unaffordable.” Every place, it turns out, has challenges and ways of meeting them.
  4. On page 183, Hendrik writes: “We have another excursion set for tomorrow. The weather report predicts perfect conditions for the aged: not too warm and not too cold, very little wind and no humidity.” Um….call me aged! I would sign up for just about any excursion on a day of that fine weather.
  5. As someone not currently living in an assisted living facility, this novel shed light on many issues that are now ‘on my radar.’ I feel I have a much better perspective on things like why a mobility scooter would be such a life-changing purchase, what loneliness feels like in a building full of people, and how it feels to have one’s life reduced to dollars and cents as one ages. I will take many lessons with me from this book. I think it should be assigned reading for all of us ‘younger folk’ with parents and grandparents dealing with the issues Hendrik discusses. It’s a wonderful, charming way to gain this perspective.
  6. In a sadder passage, Hendrik writes (p. 140), “That is the essence of the emptiness of life in here. There are no more goals. No more exams to pass, no career ladders to climb, no children to raise. We are too old, even, to babysit our grandchildren.”
  7. Bullying is apparently a ‘thing’ in assisted living facilities. Who knew? Hendrik writes all about it and the gossiping, petty and childish antics of the other residents.  There is also the official response from the administration (there are tips and protocol). It’s reminder that people are people, no matter our age.
  8. There are all sorts of scandals and antics in Hendrik’s world. These include fish tanks, cake, horse meat and contraband Christmas trees. It’s nice to know everyone breaks the rules now and then.
  9. Nobody (outside of the Dutch publisher of this novel) knows who the real author is. So, there’s a bit of mystery in terms of who this Hendrik Groen really is.
  10. Jeeves gives this book 4 solid stars. He felt Hendrik’s dignified yet realistic tone matches his own on most days, and he can see where Hendrik is coming from on many issues.

The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 ¼ Years Old will make a wonderful book club read or a personal read, perfect for a few chilly winter afternoons. Other books in this genre include The Little Old Lady Who Broke All the Rules: A Novel (Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg), The Five Wishes of Mr. Murray McBride (Joe Siple) and Hendrik’s own follow-up diary: On the Bright Side: The New Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 85 Years Old.

[You might also enjoy ONC Book Review: A River Runs Through It and Other Stories]

Finally, this book, more than anything else, may just inspire you to form a club of your own, blow the dust off your luggage, passport, motorcycle or roller skates and take an adventure yourself, with the people you enjoy….to places yet undiscovered.


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