Book Review: Eleanor: A Novel by Jason Gurley
Official FC Rating:
How does one single decision, or event, impact the future? It’s a question that many people think at some point or another. Every so often thoughts like these may cross our minds: “What if I had done this instead of that? Could it have prevented that from happening? Could I have done something to change these circumstances? Is it my fault?” These are a few of the questions explored in Jason Gurley’s surreal and heart wrenching novel, Eleanor (which has nothing to do with Eleanor Roosevelt, since I was asked this 800 times while I was reading this).
Long before Eleanor was born, tragedy strikes her family that seems to leave them with a family curse. Then, in 1985, Eleanor’s twin sister tragically dies, which puts her entire family in further emotional turmoil. Eight years later, when Eleanor is 14, she walks through a door in her school cafeteria, and exits into another world. She doesn’t return to her own world until many hours later. From that point onwards, her life is never the same.
You’d think based on that summary that I would understand going in this book was going to be sad, but nope. I was not prepared for ALL OF THE ACTUAL TEARS I WOULD SHED. Gurley certainly did an amazing job conveying emotion and creating stunning images through his words. I loved how he described the other worlds, especially the realm that he calls the rift. It was one of those novels that evoked both feelings and imagery, which makes for a great novel. The novel also deals with some fascinating themes, which Gurley handled in ways that I found both exceptional at points, and disappointing at others.
Death. Alternative universes. A dysfunctional family. Bending of time. These are all intriguing concepts to me that are featured in Eleanor. The themes of this novel actually reminded of a couple novels I read in the summer of 2015, A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, and Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami. However, in my opinion, Eleanor differs greatly from those two novels in how the main conflicts in its plot were addressed. Gurley, in some ways, uses escapist plot devices rather than tackle depression, specifically, in any kind of realistic way. I think this is likely a classic case of Deus ex Machina because the conclusion of this novel was almost too satisfying.
From this point forward there will be some major spoilers. Don’t continue reading if you plan to read Eleanor yourself!
Ozeki, Murakami, and Gurley’s novels all use surrealism in fantastic ways that make you question our own world. Each of their novels have bizarre elements, but unlike Ozeki and Murakami, Gurley uses the other worldly aspects of his story to literally solve the conflict his characters were facing. This brings us back to the main theme of the novel, which is the question of “what impact could one event, one decision, have upon the future?” Gurley’s answer to this in Eleanor is everything. The decision Eleanor’s namesake, her grandmother, made to swim into the sea while she was pregnant, thus killing herself and her unborn child alter her family’s future. This event devastates the family to such a degree that the answer to fixing the problem was, in the end, setting the clock back so Eleanor’s grandmother never kills herself.
It was one of those conclusions that really shouldn’t have surprised me, and admittedly, certain elements of the book became predictable, like Mea actually being Eleanor’s dead twin sister, Esmerelda. I don’t mind predictability in novels (unless it is painfully cliché), but in the case of Eleanor, what bothered me was that the other worlds became the tool to handle problems in Eleanor’s family that are very much the result of real problems we have in society.
Eleanor’s grandmother was very clearly battling depression. She married very young, and got pregnant with Eleanor’s mother shortly after her marriage, which led to her having to drop out of college and quit her passion, competitive swimming. As she is pregnant with her second child, she begins to question her choices, and, to some degree, resent motherhood due to her depression. She doesn’t want to go through a second pregnancy because she feels that, at times, motherhood has taken away some of her happiness, and of her own self.
The depression Eleanor’s grandmother faces, her feelings of disappointment with motherhood, and the fact that she didn’t really want to be a mother to begin with, are real problems that women face today. And Gurley, not only doesn’t address these problems in a meaningful way, but uses Eleanor’s grandmother’s depression as the central point of the whole novel. She was the sole reason the lives of her family members were ruined. I don’t think this is the message we should send to young women. Now, should Eleanor’s grandmother have killed herself? No, but Eleanor’s actions were the reflection of a society that puts too much on women’s shoulders (to put it lightly).
It also leaves the message that a woman should sacrifice everything to put her family first. The novel wouldn’t have necessarily set that message if the novel goes on to show how Eleanor’s grandmother does end up resolving her issues without committing suicide. But nah. It’s just implied that everything gets magically fixed, more or less.
From all that, it sounds like I disliked the novel, but I truly didn’t! It was a wonderful, albeit sad, book to read. I do recommend this book, but it’s a novel to be taken at face value. While the novel doesn’t examine societal or philosophical problems in a way I usually prefer, the fantastical elements were grabbing and Gurley’s descriptions were fun in a way that makes you want to draw out the scene. If you’re down for a good cry, or three, and enjoy fantasy, this novel is up your alley.
Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the Blogging For Books program in exchange for this review. All opinions are my own.