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Elsewhere

Zevin, Gabrielle

 

Farrar Straus Giroux, New York. 2005. 276 p.

 

Dying. It’s inevitable, yes, but is it something any of us like to think about? I don’t think so. It’s an especially hard subject matter for young people who think that they’re untouchable and yet as youth stretches on, they begin to realize one day this will all still come to an end. We are always struck hard when a young person dies, but do we ever stop to think how they must feel, if they can still feel at all once they’re gone? Elsewhere fills in that gap with such intelligence and sensitivity that I would like to think this place, Elsewhere, really exists.

 

The book opens with its main character, Elizabeth Hall, a fifteen-year-old average girl, dead. She was riding her bike when she was hit by a car and finally died when her parents had to pull the plug on her after she never woke up from a coma. As you can imagine, she doesn’t even realize she’s dead at first when she wakes up on a boat with no memory of how she got there. Her hair is all shaved off and there is a C-shaped scar above one of her ears, and she remembers being in an accident, but she simply thinks she is dreaming. When she looks around her room on the boat, she sees another teenage girl sleeping in the bunk above hers and wakes her up to try and figure out what’s going on. The other girl’s name is Thandi, and she has a gaping bullet hole in the back of her head. The girls wander around the ship and seem to only see old people all around. As they’re exploring, Liz sees Curtis Jest, the lead singer of her favorite band, Machine. Curtis’ arm is covered in bruises and wounds, which Liz later figures out are from heroin use. As time slips on, Liz begins putting the pieces together, and by the time the boat reaches the dock at Elsewhere, she knows she is dead. Liz’s deceased grandmother, Betty, whom she has never met since Liz was a baby when Betty died from cancer, is there to meet her. Understandably, Liz has a tough time adjusting to life in Elsewhere. She misses her friends and family, and she knows she’ll never get to have a normal life of boyfriends, marriage, babies, and a driver’s license now that she’s dead. The good news for Liz is, not everything is impossible now that she’s in Elsewhere.

 

Liz learns to cope with death, which in Elsewhere is made interesting by the fact that you age backward until you are a baby again and are then sent back to Earth to live a new life. She slowly makes peace with her death and the man who killed her; she makes new friends, and discovers talents she never knew she had. Naturally none of this comes easy to Liz initially, but we get to see her grow and mature even as she begins aging backwards.

 

I love how fresh and interesting this book is. At its core, Elsewhere is simply a novel, but Zevin takes a little bit of straight fiction and adds some fantasy to make a compelling story. At points Liz is a “typical” teenage girl, which can always be a little draining, but overall she’s a likable and relatable person. The love story part in the book kind of bummed me out a little, just because I could have seen it going a different way, but in the end everything works out they way it is meant to. Death is one of the worst parts of life, if not THE worst of course, but Zevin presents a unique look at death and may make teenage readers think a little harder about their own lives and mortality.

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Monsters of Templeton

Groff, Lauren

 

Voice/Hyperion, New York. 2008. 364 p.

 

So it’s not often that I’m caught reading an adult book in my current life as a member of the children’s department, but this book definitely caught my attention and was able to keep it, which is saying something. Once you start reading a lot of children’s books, it’s harder to get into adult books because the pacing is much slower and themes more complex. This book is not a light weight in either way, but it’s Groff flawed characters and twisting plot that keep you coming back.

 

The story centers on our main character, Wilhelmina Sunshine Upton, a borderline misanthrope who returns to her home town of Templeton, New York (based off of Cooperstown) pregnant with her married professor’s baby. Adding to Willie’s stress and general anxiety, her best friend Clarissa is sick with lupus and basically dying miles away in California, and she finds out that her real father lives in Templeton and is not some mystery hippie from her mom’s wild past in San Francisco. To say the least, she’s kinda in a pickle. Clarissa doesn’t want Willie’s help even though her husband’s nerves are nearly shot taking care of her all by himself. Willie’s mom, Vi, won’t help her find her father because she secretly understands Willie is the type of person who has to do the research herself. Willie herself is still love sick with the philandering professor and seems to still attract more men on her return to Templeton, whether she likes them or not. Oh! And I’ve almost forgotten the monster in the lake (think Loch Ness) that is a strange part of Templeton and its people.

 

Just from this you can see the story is already complicated enough. Add to all this a rich (and sometimes convoluted and outlandish) family history involving numerous generations and a ghost that haunts the centuries-old cottage Willie grew up in. Groff switches back and forth between the present with Willie’s voice and the past with the voices from Willie’s ancestors and predecessors, sometimes losing me, other times giving me a tightly woven narrative filled with so many detailed characters I wonder how she kept them all straight.

 

This is the one of those epic books that may take you a while to finish, but when you finally do, you almost want to go back to the beginning and this time take notes to make sure you appreciate what Groff has created in this magical world of Templeton. It’s hard to get me to read an adult book nowadays, not to mention finish AND like one, but this one succeeded.