Hardcover, 384 pages
Published January 12th 2016 by Crown (first published 2016)
Authors get asked to do a lot of blurbs, especially once they’re on bigger publishers. However, some authors give blurbs that I take very seriously, especially if they follow up by repeatedly praising a book – Hugh Howey is one of those guys for me, and he has bestowed the quality of Jason Gurley’s work for some time. While I am very crappy at it, I do my best to support local guys as well, and Gurley is a Portland guy like myself, and I have had him on my to-read for a while. On my to-read, but not actually read, and I was never quite sure why, other than I just didn’t quite get to it. With a to-read list like mine, and a slow reading schedule, the best way to get read by me is to be available on audio, and Gurley finally was as of a couple months ago – rejoice!
Eleanor is what I’ve noticed recently called “magical realism” – a story in an otherwise normal, (usually) modern earth, but with some magical elements. Seemingly differentiated from ‘urban fantasy’ by the focus – less on first person magical character, more on mundane people with magical abilities, or in a slightly-magical world. I’ve read a lot in this “genre” of late – This Census-Taker by China Mieville, and A Darker Shade of Magic by VE Schwab being the most obvious. However, Eleanor trumps those – and how.
Eleanor begins as the tale of a young mother, a depressed mother of young Agnes, who has watch her dreams fail due to her family/relationship choices, and lives in a constant state of resentment. Until, one day, she disappears. The story then switches to that of Agnes and her two twin daughters, one of whom named after aforementioned young mother, Eleanor. Another depressed mother, living in resentment, until a tragic accident takes the life of one of her daughters. We then shift into the main POV character, that of the remaining daughter of Agnes, Eleanor.
We watch as Eleanor 2.0 copes with her father, Paul, having left Agnes and Eleanor, largely caused by Agnes’ spiral into nothingness, drinking her life away and doing little else other than lashing out at those around her, and feeling sorry for herself. Meanwhile, her young and emotionally damaged daughter is forced to single-handedly care for herself, while coping with harsh migraines and mental distress, as well as the lack of real parenting. However, one day, Eleanor is at school, and as she enters a doorway, she feels an electric crackling sensation, and is suddenly no longer in her school, but rather an entire place entirely.
We follow Eleanor as she, as well as her best friend Jack, her father, her mother, and her aunt, try to figure out why Eleanor suddenly disappears, reappearing (sometimes forcefully) in different places, over varying time delays. We also explore the people behind these disappearances, their motivations, their struggles, and eventually, their identity. It is hard to describe much more without giving away spoilers, at least without giving away more spoilers than I already have.
I am not quite sure what I expected going into Eleanor – I had honestly heard very little about the novel, aside from “it’s really good”. I wasn’t aware of the setting or characters, and I certainly was not prepared for what it was: a gut-wrenching, tear-jerking story of a family in peril, numerous tragedies, and a young girl forced to cope with all of this without much help from around her, aside from essentially one single person.
However, this, as well as almost every other aspect of the novel, is brilliantly and skillfully handled by Gurley. Eleanor feels as close to a real, tangible girl in her age bracket as I could possibly imagine, especially being written by someone who was not a preteen girl (I assume?). Considering the number of tragic events, the family trauma, the degeneration mentally of many characters, it was integral to the success of this novel for this grief to be written well, to have the characters address situations in a manner that is both realistic, but also does not limit the story progress. Thankfully, Jason handles these situations brilliantly, and I frequently found myself feeling as though I’d been punched, sympathizing with the characters, rooting for them, grieving their losses, feeling their pains.
The novel builds and builds as it goes – it begins so bleak, so harsh, and so shockingly. You’re introduced to characters, before they change drastically, or go away altogether. This is a book of loss, of handling loss, of addressing adversity. Everyone in the novel seems to go through serious and terrible events, and everyone is forced to cope, to manage their grief, to either move on and try to live, or spiral in self-destruction. Everyone handles things differently, everyone feels their pain differently. It was as close to perfect as I think I’ve read in that aspect – unique characters handle situations in unique and suitable ways.
Eleanor’s growth is brilliant as well – her changes from being a young girl, to an overly-mature-for-her-age teenager, to a constantly traumatized adult who had no time to adapt to the years of her life she’d lost due to her ‘blips’ (for lack of a spoiler-free way of putting it). No change is as drastic as hers, but the other characters all evolve, all adapt to their situations in varying ways. This is the biggest strong point of the book to me, as my immersion was kept at a consistent level because the characters always felt realistic, and visceral, and engaging.
The creativity of the book varies, but I am not looking for groundbreaking changes all the time – I’m looking for great writing, great characters, and enough unique aspects to keep me interested. There’s a portal aspect to this story, as well as a certain level of magical beings and/or powers, or at least unexplainable powers. I thought the escalation of the side-storyline was terrific, as we were led closer and closer to the climax and conclusion, as Eleanor figured out what was happening, explored it, and completed what she needed to.
My biggest complaint about the book was the odd gender discrepancy. I am one of the last people to complain about this kind of thing in books (really), but I could not help but notice in the novel that the male characters are, largely, featuring only minor flaws. Jack is a borderline Gary Stu – he is the best friend a person could have, always forgiving and protecting Eleanor, being there for her at all times, altruistic in his actions and feelings, and despite being head over heels in love with Eleanor, he is patient with her even when she disappears. Paul, while struggling with losing a daughter and not getting much out of Eleanor, does his best, doesn’t do anything outwardly negative, and swoops back in to care for Agnes later in the book.
Meanwhile, basically all of the female characters are heavily broken in one way or another. The original Eleanor is self-centered, whiny, and apathetic, essentially caring for her feelings only, caring about how upset she is, how the things that happen to her and the events in her life are unfair, until she throws it all voluntarily away, leaving everyone else behind to deal with things. Agnes herself takes up her mother’s footsteps, having a major anger problem, reacting aggressively to Paul’s business trips and work schedule, harboring animosity towards almost everyone, including, eventually, her own daughter, going as far as to blame her for her sister’s death, when it was clearly Agnes’ fault. Even our Eleanor is flawed, not only having massive headaches and health issues, but frequently snapping out at people, and while she was more perfect than any of the other females, she still had huge issues.
Again, I normally would not even notice a thing like this, but the fact I did means it was a bit of a glaring dichotomy. Maybe there was an intent there by Gurley that I missed, some message or metaphor, but if there was, I missed it, and it just felt like the females were all inherently largely flawed, while the males were much less so. Despite that, it did not really distract me from the story much, and I felt the female characters were well written, including their flaws.
Overall, I was blown away by the book. I invested emotionally into it significantly more than I have with almost any recent novel I can think of. I felt for the characters, I was anxious for them, and I was hooked – always wanting to know what happened next, how things would turn out. I blasted through the book in only a few days, and I just couldn’t get enough of it. If this is the kind of quality I can expect from Jason Gurley, then I absolutely agree with Hugh Howey’s assessment – he’s excellent.