by Gabrielle Zevin
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
224 pages, 2005
Reviewed by Tony Buchsbaum
I could not begin to tell you why I was drawn to Elsewhere, a breathtaking new young adult novel. I do not usually read YAs, and I do not necessarily like to immerse myself in novels narrated by young dead girls (The Lovely Bones being a notable exception).
But drawn to it I was. Thankfully so, for Elsewhere is, for its brevity and its deceptively simple style, a remarkable book. It's a captivating, heartbreaking and illuminating tale of what happens after we die.
Liz Hall, the narrator, is a well-spoken, emotionally intense 15-year-old. She was primed for adolescence: boyfriends, driving, her first bra. And then she was killed in an accident, after which she ends up in heaven looking down as those who loved her go on with their lives.
At this point you might be tempted, given this setup, to call this a Lovely Bones rip-off. But you could not be more wrong. While Lovely Bones was a tragedy, a wrenching tale of sadness and regret and longing, Elsewhere is an adventure, by turns funny, sad, and -- best of all -- wonderfully poetic.
After the accident, Liz ends up in a heaven called Elsewhere, an extraordinarily organized place where the dead go to await rebirth. On the surface, Elsewhere looks and feels very much like the city where Albert Brooks and Meryl Streep go in the wonderful film Defending Your Life. In other words, it looks a lot like real life -- life on earth -- but it isn't.
In Elsewhere, the dead are not dead in the traditional sense. They do not simply hang around in a cliché state of ethereal limbo. They have lives. They work. They eat and play and have relationships. They explore life as we do. They succeed and they stumble as we do. Most important, they age -- but backward, from the age they were at the moment of their arrival to infancy, at which time they're transported back to earth for a new life.
Given this metaphysical wrinkle, one gets wiser as one gets younger. For Liz, this means she will have the experiences of, say, a 21-year-old when she is nine.
Surely, this will challenge some readers' belief systems, but for an author with Gabrielle Zevin's power, it opens up all sorts of possibilities for growth, even as one "de-matures." In Liz's case, she meets the grandmother she never knew, who died just before Liz was born. This means Betty is 15 years younger than she was when she died, and it means she and Liz are quite able to become friends as well as new relations.
This is just one example of what happens to Liz -- and one of the ways that, in Elsewhere, unrequited life is given a new lease. Here, Marilyn Monroe can be a psychiatrist and Picasso can keep on painting. It's a place where many people speak animal, so they can communicate with deceased pets. It's a place where a curious, resilient girl like Liz might find love in the most unexpected of places -- and an even deeper sense of belonging, purpose and life than she ever had when she was alive.
I don't want to get to much further into what happens in Elsewhere, for I found its developments fascinating as well as surprising. Its many twists and turns arise organically, from the rather simple idea of backward aging, which gives the book a grace that many others forgo in exchange for a nice, neat, well-packaged plot.
In contrast, Elsewhere is a book that's anything but forgettable. It stays with you, resonating with intelligence. It's one of those special books that's almost -- but not quite -- science fiction. It shines a light on the world and our human condition like the best science fiction certainly does, but without the genre's epic dread. On every page, Gabrielle Zevin's acute observations infuse her inspired and inspiring story and her immensely likable characters with both actual and implied wisdom. Her restraint -- and the book's -- speaks volumes. | August 2005
Tony Buchsbaum is the author of Total Eclipse. He and his family live in Lawrenceville, NJ, and he is Creative Director/Copy for a pharmaceutical ad agency in Philadelphia.