Imagine for a second that you were plonked down in the middle of a foreign country with limited language skills and only a passing familiarity with the culture after a lifetime spent hidden away from the outside world.
What would that feel like? How disorienting would it be? Would you sink, swim or hope that someone would come along to help you?
It’s an imperfect allusion at best, but this rather crudely-sketched example gives you some idea what it would be like to be Elvira Carr, a 27 year old woman with a “Condition” – possibly autism but it’s never really spelt out which for the purposes of this charming narrative is a good thing – who in the short course of a year finds herself living on her own after her mother has a stroke and ends up in a home, finds out there’s far more to her small family that she could ever have imagined, and has to adapt to far more changes than the status quo-upsetting averse animal lover cares to contemplate.
In The Seven Imperfect Rules of Elivra Carr, we come to understand how much of a wrench all these momentous change are for someone who’s life has been lived solely under the control of a domineering mother, Agnes, largely kept apart from the world after a number of “Incidents”, and unaware of a great many things including her family history, how to navigate the contrary, messy and downright hypocritical world of the Normal/Typicals, she terms them, and the possibilities awaiting as she steps, uncertainly, from her cocoon.
“There were lots of new things I had to do now: visiting Mother twice a day, using the bus, deciding what to eat, shopping without her list, doing the housework without supervision, being alert to Incidents, trying to show I was safe on my own. Managing it all sent me to bed in the daytime. In bed I listed all the different varieties of biscuits I knew, and their brands, and said them in alphabetical order but it didn’t always make me feel better.” (P. 21)
To cope with all this apple cart-upending change, a major upheaval for someone who craves routines, rules and repetition, and abhors the wild unpredictable shifts of conversation and social interaction generally, Elvira, comes up with her Seven Imperfect Rules, which lay out all the things you can and cannot say to other people, when you should say them and how.
Self-aware to the extent that she has trained herself to be, Elvira is all too cognisant of the fact that her propensity, even with these markers, gleaned from onsite searches – one major yardstick of her progress once she’s out from under her mother’s protective oppressiveness is how quickly she takes to Google’s many wonders – to make mistakes is considerable.
Hence the imperfect nature of her rules.
For the rest of us, those of us who choose to observe them anyway, things like “Rule 1: Being polite and respectful is always a good idea” and “Rule 4: You learn by making mistakes” are almost automatic; we just know that these are the unspoken rules by which society functions.
For Elvira, they are a learned experience, once filled with many pitfalls and errors, but also the chance to grow and develop as a person in ways that people like her neighbour Sylvia, her mother’s good friend and a stalwart of support after her mother’s stroke, believes she is more than capable of mastering.
Elvira of course has no choice but to master her rules and live by them; not simply because she is alone now and has to navigate life all by herself but because she is fearful that Social Services, who hang like an imaginary threat above her head all through the book – she fears Sylvia’s husband Trev or son Josh will call them; they see her, unfortunately, as a “retard” – will come a-calling and take away her independence.
The irony, of course, is that she didn’t particularly want her independence, and almost resents the loss of her comfortable, if stultifying, routine.
But once choice is taken from her and she comes to appreciate what a little freedom can give her such as friendships with Karen and Paul at Animal Arcadia, wildlife park where she volunteers – Elvira loves animals and David Attenborough documentaries, all of which she knows by heart – Brenda who runs the Pet Therapy sessions at her mother’s home and even Janice at her favourite Asda supermarket, Elvira blossoms and grows in heartwarming and life-affirming ways.
What saves the book from being a veritable twee-fest is the way Maynard throws in some dark and troubling aspects to Elvira’s awakening.
Yes there is an uplifting Pollyanna aspect to it all, but there are also some serious missteps too, some caused by Elvira’s misunderstanding of the vagaries of human interaction but others by life’s ability to throw curveballs that would throw the best of us, let alone someone for whom the unexpected is anathema. (One incident in particular is heartbreakingly confronting, making you realise that while Elvira is making great progress, she still has a way to go.)
“I had my volunteering, my friends at Asda and the Library, Paul, Karen too, Sylvia-next-door, and Roxanna, and in the evenings I had Coronation Street, Casualty, my David Attenborough DVDs and all my Mills & Boons. I had a full life. But, at this moment, I felt empty rather than full. Not just empty but … naked.” (PP. 287-288)
These complications to Elvira’s rule-led life, albeit a growing and haphazardly expanding one, give The Seven Imperfect Rules of Elvira Carr a substance and narrative robustness that fill out the up-and-up feel of things in a way that feels authentic and earned.
Elvira’s life does get better and better but with plenty of bumps and scrapes along the way, some of them fairly substantial ones but as she discovers along the way, she is able to cope, she can handle life, and yes there are a plenty of times she just wants to hide under the duvet, and she does, but there are always plenty of others where she’s comes through with flying colours.
And even those times when she falls spectacularly fall on her face – not really; that is what she learns is a Figure of Speech or FOS and should not be taken literally – her “failures” say more about the hypocrisies, lies and inconsistencies of the Normal/Typical world than about her ability to work out how life works and respond accordingly.
The Seven Imperfect Rules of Elvira Carr is a delight and a joy, and Maynard infuses the protagonist with some real, warts-and-all humanity to add to her purity of heart and approach, but it’s also very real, very true and enormously heartfelt, a reminder that sometimes not fitting in is a good thing and that while you can make peace with the “rules” around you, it’s also OK to just be yourself and maybe, just maybe, let the world fold itself around you instead.