Eleanor, the latest novel from Jason Gurley, who became a bestseller through his Kindle Worlds writing, begins as a painful but beautiful coming-of-age tale of a teenager bound by guilt to raise herself while taking care of her alcoholic mother. But then the title character’s life—and in turn the novel—is dramatically disrupted when Eleanor starts disappearing in front of friends and loved ones, losing time as she’s transported to other worlds. The result is a disjointed narrative that never manages to satisfyingly combine its component parts, leaving intriguing plot points undeveloped in favor of some too predictable fantasy tropes.
The story, which was originally self-published but has since been released by Crown Publishing, starts decades before Eleanor’s birth from the perspective of her grandmother and namesake, a depressed woman who has lost her dreams of being an Olympic swimmer and commits suicide while pregnant with her second child. The story then flits between narrators including Eleanor and her parents, drawing out the day of a car crash that kills Eleanor’s twin sister, Esmeralda, before jumping forward to spend the bulk of its time focusing on a teenage Eleanor, a cosmic being named Mea who lives in a fish bowl where she can see all of time and space, and The Keeper, a woman who holds omnipotent power over a gray forest and resents Eleanor for invading her domain.
While The Keeper’s chapters seem disconnected from the main story for most of the book, they offer Eleanor’s most striking imagery and eventually a nice payoff as her peaceful, solitary life threatens to violently fall apart. In contrast, everything involving Mea and her ominous captor, Efah, is dull and obvious. It’s frustrating as that part of the narrative begins to dominate the story, hedging out the more compelling material like the quiet, awkward love Eleanor develops with a teenage boy she’s bonded with because of their shared experience with alcoholic parents, or the resentment her father feels because Eleanor chose to live with her neglectful mother instead of him.
So many plot points feel untethered when they might have been neatly tied off. Before the accident, Eleanor’s father feels guilty about having a special bond with Eleanor, but that emotional conflict is only a factor in a single chapter. A young Eleanor is obsessed with drawing secret underground passages and her cousins were on a plane that vanished—yet neither of these things seems to have anything to do with Eleanor’s disappearance and the worlds she visits. The novel took a decade to finish, so its possible some of these issues can be blamed on parts of the narrative that shifted or were cut over time.
There’s perhaps a better version of Eleanor hidden in the existing novel where the supernatural elements are more mysterious and subtle, building on the concerns people around her have as they grasp for rational ways to explain her disappearances and the physical toll Eleanor’s journeys takes on her. There are questions about if she’s run away or being abused—both reasonable given her home life—but the magical nature of what’s happening soon becomes undeniable to her friends and family. When Mea and Efah reveal that Eleanor might be able to change the past and she traces her mother’s issues, Gurley could have made points about the destructive power of regret and dwelling on misfortune, or how tragedy begets tragedy. But this is a very literal fantasy, more concerned with laying out its rules for how Eleanor can travel between realms and what steps she needs to take to achieve to make everything right again.
While it’s not being marketed as YA literature, Eleanor is essentially a fusion of the wish-fulfillment supernatural tales and realistic dramas that are currently dominating the format. There’s certainly merit in trying to combine the two ideas, but Gurley’s attempts at genre bending just leave the novel feeling broken.