Elsewhere, by Gabrielle Zevin

Some books, like Elsewhere, I read so long ago, and yet I remember so much in vivid detail. Like A Mango-Shaped Space, it was so real and so gripping to fourteen-year-old me that it made me sob my eyes out. I’ve read enough old young adult books from my childhood to not be quite as blown away as before, so I prepared myself going into Elsewhere. And…

Fifteen-year-old Liz Hall wakes up after a bicycle accident on a boat, which apparently is going somewhere called Elsewhere. It turns out that Liz, along with everyone on the boat, is dead, and they’re going to begin their new afterlife in Elsewhere. While there, Liza grapples with her death and what her new afterlife entails. All she knows is that from now on, she will age backward until she becomes a baby again and returns to Earth.

Elsewhere has a genius premise. It paints the afterlife in a way that not many people have. Elsewhere is not an afterlife where you are judged suitable for heaven or hell. You just arrive there and you begin a new life until you become a baby and are born again on Earth. It’s not a place of exceptional beauty: it’s just another place you go in your cosmic journey. Even as a kid, I found it so refreshing to see a different angle on such a speculated part of life.

But that does not mean that Liz does not go through trauma while in Elsewhere. She goes through a serious depression upon arriving there, and it’s heartbreaking to see her family try to get on without her, as she observes. Later in the story, Liz finds love with someone in Elsewhere, but it’s tested when an old love interest enters the picture.

While there is a lot that I like about this book, I do have a few grapples with its story.

The main drama comes when Liz’s love interest becomes tied between her and an old love of his. It feels like such trite teenage drama that it doesn’t hold a lot of water. It’s handled very maturely, but it still feels kind of awkward to watch—like, this is the main conflict of a story about life after death? A love triangle? (I mean, this was 2005, long before that trope left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth, but still).

The other big problem with Elsewhere is its pacing. Because so much time passes just within 300 pages, a lot is told rather than shown. We are told about the big things that happen during Liz’s tenure in Elsewhere, so some relationships and story beats feel halfway developed. It does pay attention to some important things, like Liz’s depression, but if the story really wants us to believe that Liz is heartbroken, then it needed to show more of her love story. It was definitely not the most believable love story I’ve read.

The dialogue is also a little too trite—and sometimes too sophisticated—for the people speaking it. In Elsewhere, people can hold their jobs far into childhood, and yet, those children still talk like grown adults. I think it’s in line with how people have aged backward and still retain their adult wisdom and insight, but they still act a lot like kids. So that bit didn’t quite gel.

Plus, the more Liz matures, the more room she has to spout cheesy lines about the meaning of life and what she’s learned. It, again, did not seem like something a girl of her maturity would say.

Make no mistake, Elsewhere is still a good book. If it stuck with me this long, it had to have done something right. It’s a little trite in some places, and some story choices do not make sense. But it’s still such a sweet, optimistic picture of the afterlife that it deserves to be read and talked about.

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