Toward the end of Elders, one of the novel’s protagonists muses about how he sometimes views his life like a storyteller. When he does a good deed or works on a project, he tries to take in the details around him so they can be woven into a future narrative. As a result, he’s horribly disappointed when that effort is wasted because those moments don’t turn out to provide a satisfying story at all. It’s a self-aware moment for first-time author Ryan McIlvain, who is more concerned with painting an honest portrait than providing the action or drama that makes a traditional good story.
Elders splits time between the perspectives of Elders Passos and McLeod, a pair of young Mormon missionaries working in Brazil. Passos is a Brazilian who converted to Mormonism because after his mother’s death, he found comfort in the message that he would be reunited with his family in the afterlife. His church membership also offers him a glimpse of a better life, giving him a shot at studying in America and raising his family out of poverty.
McLeod has a stronger presence. That’s likely because McIlvain is able to bring a bit of autobiography into the character, drawing on his experiences growing up as a Mormon and splitting with the church in his youth. McLeod wants to believe and satisfy his pious father, but he’s brought down by doubt and frustration.
McIlvain makes both characters sympathetic and hateful at different points of the story, as their missionary work is alternately stymied by McLeod’s childishness and Passos’ ambition. The characters’ strength helps compensate for the inherent weakness of a novel that strives for a mood of tedium, as the two while away days knocking on doors that no one answers. The rare chats McLeod has with his fellow American missionaries aren’t just a relief for the character. They offer all-too-rare bits of humor, as the friends abandon the smiles and enthusiasm they use when knocking on doors, and turn out to just be college-age boys, counting the days until they can go home, and discussing important topics like whether the church approves of oral sex.
Given McIlvain’s background, it’s no surprise that this isn’t a kind portrayal of the church. Some of the anti-Mormon brochures the companions encounter point out the standard criticisms of Mormon views on polygamy and race. But as the characters brush those off, they’re forced to deal with the subtler problems that McIlvain is clearly more interested in, such as the church’s imperialist and sexist tendencies.
The Book Of Mormon’s success raised interest in stories about Mormon missionaries, but Elders doesn’t try for any of the grand conflicts or morals that the musical presents. What it does offer is an intimate look at the nature of faith, and the very personal struggle involved with finding it or losing it.