Throwback Thursday 1: Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin

A new feature I’d like to try out here is “Throwback Thursday,” and trust me when I say it won’t happen every Thursday…but more like two Thursdays a month. This feature will highlight books from a few years ago that are new-to-me and worth reading. Equal opportunity blogging, indeed.

Gabrielle Zevin’s first splash on the teen lit scene was with Elsewhere in 2005.

After Liz Hall is killed in an accident, she finds herself on a ship heading to a place called Elsewhere. Of course, she doesn’t understand where she is yet, but she knows she is surrounded by strangers, including one of her favorite singers. Her family is notable absent. So, where’s she going and why aren’t they around?

She quickly learns she is no longer alive and instead will reside in Elsewhere for the next 15 years. Elsewhere is home of those who have died, and she knows she will be there 15 years because in Elsewhere, people age backwards, rather than forwards. When they reach age 0, they are transported back to Earth for a new shot at life.

Liz meets up with her grandmother, who will take care of her in Elsewhere, but Liz cannot find herself happy. Rather, she spends hours on the Observation Deck that allows her to look back to Earth and long for her family and friends. Through some sneakery, Liz also finds a way to go back to Earth and communicate with (i.e., scare the crap out of) those still living. After many interventions, she realizes this will not help with either her closure or the closure of her family; however, she has so many unanswered questions that living in Elsewhere feels like a prison, rather than the most wonderful place on earth.

Elsewhere was one of the first books to explore the dead-girl-in-the-afterworld trope, which has been redone a number of times, notably in the Morris-nominated Everafter by Amy Huntley. Zevin’s book has a number of issues with pacing and timing, however, that I felt weren’t present in Huntley’s book; years would pass by without much incident, as though Liz were simply okay with her situation in Elsewhere, while she’s spent significant time prior moping and bemoaning her situation. I wish this were more seamless.

As far as pacing was concerned, there were jumps that were awkward, but the book read quickly. Zevin’s style is pleasing, as I mentioned in the review for This Hole We’re In. She writes realistic dialog, and I felt that Liz was a belivable teenager. I’m under the belief teens feel this is the case, too, as my copies of this title are rarely available on shelf — for five years, this has been quite a popular book.

One of the notes I made to myself on this particular title, though, was that there were a lot of unanswered questions for me. I didn’t quite understand the bigger idea of Elsewhere, nor how Liz found herself surrounded by certain people and not others. She befriends a favorite musician from her days of being alive, but she never seems to really meet anyone else (this could go back to pacing and plot jumps, too). Likewise, did everyone go to Elsewhere? What sort of point was there in Elsewhere? People could work jobs, but the money they made was a moot point since nothing cost money in Elsewhere. To me, it was a little strange to have developed this world but left so many questions for the reader. I wish I had gotten to know Liz a little better, both in her Earthly life and in Elsewhere. Oh, and the perspective-told-from-a-dog needed either to be pushed further or left out entirely. It felt a little forced for how it was presented. It opened more questions, too, about Elsewhere’s requirements for admission. And really, how the heck would you ever FIND your loved ones if everyone could be in Elsewhere? Mind-boggling!

Is it fair to compare a book like this — a first in this style or idea — to something that felt more fully fleshed like Everafter that came a few years later? I’m not sure and I’m not sure it matters a whole lot. These are fantastic readalikes, along with The Lovely Bones. There is definite girl appeal written all over these, which begs the question when an author will approach this theme with a male character and, perhaps, a male-dominated world? I’d love to read something that shakes up the trope like that.

That said, Zevin’s work, I think, will be one of those teen classics. It has staying power, and it will appeal to your readers’ contemplating what happens after we die (and who doesn’t think about that?). Fluid writing and he intriguing concept, without doubt, make up for some of the weaknesses.

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  1. says

    I read Elsewhere back when it first came out, so I can't recall if the things that you criticized bothered me or not. Probably not, though, since it's got a spot on my favorite books list.

    Anyway, The Afterlife by Gary Soto could fit as book with this theme from a male perspective, and maybe Restless by Rich Wallace (not life after death for the protagonist, but his brother became a ghost. I think. It's been a while since I read this one, too).

  2. says

    OH, thanks for those titles. I am going to try to hunt them down and read those, for the male perspective.

    I still liked this book quite a bit. For what it is, it's groundbreaking in terms of, I think, what it did for modern teen lit. It really brought it to a forefront — it came out about the same time as John Green's "Looking for Alaska," another book that shook teen lit.

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