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SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin.
The magical realist novel, Elsewhere (2005) by Gabrielle Zevin, follows a teenage girl’s afterlife after she is hit and killed by a taxi cab. Zevin’s debut novel was made into a movie in 2009 and became a New York Times bestseller.
Elsewhere’s overarching themes include accepting grief, the redemptive power of love, and coming to terms with the human condition.
The third person omnipresent point of view novel opens with fifteen-year-old Elizabeth “Liz” Marie Hall waking up in a cabin. She is mildly freaked out when she feels her bald head and stitches at the back of her skull. She greets her roommate, Thandi, and together the two explore the ship, a stylish steel-white one, called the SS Nile.
They each remember how they died. Liz is increasingly sure that this is not a nightmare, but her new reality.
After a long trip on the SS Nile, Liz accepts that she is truly dead. The ship docks on an Island called Elsewhere.
Liz soon meets her grandmother, Betty, for the first time ever. Betty died from breast cancer in her thirties. For most of the novel, Betty will do her best to care for Liz. Liz initially stays with her in Elsewhere.
Liz learns that in Elsewhere, people age backwards, from the time of their death until they are new and ready to be born back into the world. When they are seven years old, they are sent back to earth to be reborn as a baby.
Elsewhere is very similar to life on earth: people drive cars, maintain jobs, and get married.
Liz is disappointed by life in Elsewhere: this means she will never have a sweet sixteen birthday, or have a driver’s license, or go to prom or even graduate, let alone marry or attend college.
The novel traces Liz’s struggle to find happiness in a life that goes backwards, in a world where (in the conventional sense) there is nothing to look forward to.
Unable to accept that fact she is dead, Liz spends most of her time on the observation deck (“OD” in the novel). For one “eternim” (money in Elsewhere) she purchases five minutes of earth-viewing time. Though she can see earth, she is unable to (and forbidden) to contact anyone there. She watches her own funeral, and is surprised to see that her best friend, Zooey, did not show for some reason. She pays for more and more time at the OD to see how her parents and younger brother, Alvy, are coping with her absence.
While moping at the OD, Liz learns about a place called “The Well.” It is at the bottom of the ocean in a well-lit area; Liz hears that anyone in Elsewhere can contact someone on earth through The Well. Liz goes to The Well, but she is caught by Betty right before she reaches the water.
In her second attempt, Liz reaches her brother; her incursion into the earth actually causes great distress for her family. Her contact with her brother is cut short when Owen, a seventeen-year-old boy, fishes her out of The Well.
Once Betty hears of Liz’s unruly behavior, Liz is forced to get a job and attain an “advocate.” This intervention is supposed to take her mind off of her own depression.
Liz decides to care for animals in Elsewhere who, like humans, age backwards. Liz becomes a dog counselor, and is delighted to learn that, in Elsewhere, she can speak fluent Canine. Her conversations with Sadie, a mutt, and Jen, a golden retriever, give her a good laugh and inspire her to cherish whatever moment she finds herself in.
Owen does Liz a favor and takes a dive into The Well, to let Liz’s brother know that she is alright.
Liz learns that Owen was married to an Emily. A few days later, Liz finds Emily’s name on a list of new people making the journey to Elsewhere. Owen, Betty, and Liz meet Emily at the dock.
Emily is happy to see Owen, even if he is an adolescent, and agrees to continue their relationship in Elsewhere. But after a few weeks pass, Emily breaks up with Owen because their age difference is too awkward.
Owen gets over Emily quickly because he has formed feelings for Liz. But Liz is too focused on getting back to earth; she is also hurt that Owen would choose to date Emily over her in the first place. Because she died so young, she is eligible for an early release; thinking that Owen does not want to be with her, Liz decides to accept the early release option.
In the middle of the release, Liz realizes that she doesn’t wish to return to earth. Everything she wants (namely Owen) is back in Elsewhere. Her willpower stops her release and strands her in-between earth and Elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Owen has not lost hope that Liz will return to Elsewhere. Though everyone has given up on locating Liz in earth or Elsewhere, Owen continues the search for Liz. He finds her in a space between Elsewhere and earth.
Liz and Owen live happily together, aging backwards. She “retires” at the age of seven. Eventually, she is swaddled by a nurse, then sent back to earth via the SS Nile. She is accompanied by her original roommate, Thandi.
On her journey back to earth, Liz thinks of how she enjoyed Elsewhere.