One moment, 15-year-old Liz Hall is riding her bike to meet a friend at the mall. The next thing she knows, she's alone on a mysterious cruise ship with lots of senior citizens playing shuffleboard. Liz soon realizes there's something odd about all the passengers, including herself. It turns out that they've all recently died (Liz was hit by a taxi) and are heading to Elsewhere.
To Liz, Elsewhere seems like an odd place, with its own laws and customs. Despite her new relationship with her grandmother, who died before Liz was born, Liz has a hard time adjusting to her new "life." As one of the few young people arriving in Elsewhere, she's lonely. She spends hours watching her family and friends from a special observation deck, and even makes a dangerous attempt to contact her family, with surprising results that shock her out of her depression, help her discover love and allow her to live again.
In Elsewhere, Gabrielle Zevin has imagined a rich, original vision of the afterlife. There are no tunnels of bright white light, no angels or pearly gates. Most intriguing is the book's conception of reincarnation. The residents of Elsewhere all gradually grow younger, until, as babies, they are reborn on Earth. Life on Elsewhere is finite and predictable; each person has exactly as much time to live backward as they lived forward on Earth, before heading back to Earth to do it all over again. One of the themes of the novel is an exploration of how this knowledge, this life lived backward, affects people's relationships, their choices and their vision of themselves.
Despite its subject matter, Elsewhere largely avoids maudlin sentimentality. Instead, in addition to being genuinely funny in places, this lovely novel is truly thoughtful: "There are so my lives. How we wish we could live them concurrently instead of one by one by one. We could select the best pieces of each, stringing them together like a strand of pearls. But that's not how it works. A human's life is a beautiful mess." Elsewhere inspires reflection on death and on life.
Norah Piehl is a freelance writer and editor in the Boston area.