76 pages 2 hours read

Gabrielle Zevin


Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 2005

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Summary and Study Guide


Elsewhere is a coming-of-age story and work of magical realism—a genre in which fantastical elements (e.g. talking animals) are woven into an otherwise ordinary setting. First published in 2005, it was writer Gabrielle Zevin’s first novel for a YA audience, and was a 2006 Bank Street Best Children’s Book; it is also an American Library Association Notable Children’s Book. All page numbers in this guide refer to the Farrar, Straus, and Giroux edition. 

Plot Summary

Elsewhere begins just after the death of its protagonist, 15-year-old Elizabeth (“Liz”) Hall. Liz wakes up one morning aboard a cruise ship called the SS Nile. Although Liz initially believes herself to be dreaming, certain details of her situation strike her as odd; her bunkmate—a 16-year-old girl named Thandi—has a healing gunshot wound at the back of her head, while Liz sports a line of stitches above her ear. In addition, Liz has vague memories of being struck by a car while riding her bike to the mall. Eventually, Liz is summoned to the ship’s Observation Deck, where she watches her own funeral through a pair of binoculars and must acknowledge the truth: she is dead.

When the SS Nile arrives at its destination—a place simply known as “Elsewhere”—Liz’s long-deceased grandmother Betty is waiting to greet her. To Liz’s surprise, Betty, who died aged 50, now looks to be in her 30s; on the drive back to her house, Betty explains that in Elsewhere, everyone ages backwards until they become newborns, at which point they are sent back to Earth. At her acclimation appointment the next morning, Liz learns from her counselor that she’s also expected to choose an “avocation”—a line of work she finds meaningful.

Liz struggles to adjust to life in Elsewhere, and in particular to the fact that she will never physically grow up; she had hoped to one day attend college, become a veterinarian, and marry. In the months leading up to what would have been her 16th birthday, Liz spends as much time as she can watching her friends and family on Earth from Elsewhere’s Observation Decks. When she learns that she was the victim of a hit-and-run, Liz manages to identify the driver as a man named Amadou Bonamy, and she begins searching for a way to bring him to justice. However, the more she watches Amadou, the more Liz comes to see him as a good man who made a mistake; consequently, she gives up her desire for revenge.

Liz gradually settles into her new life, taking a job with the Division of Domestic Animals and counseling newly deceased dogs (who can communicate with humans on Elsewhere). Nevertheless, she wants to make sure her father receives the birthday present she had bought for him before her death, so she swims out into the ocean and dives to a place called the Well—one of the few ways to communicate with the living. Her attempt is cut short by a detective named Owen Welles, who scoops her into his boat and reminds her that Contact is against the law.

Despite the circumstances under which they met, Owen and Liz soon become friends. Although he was 26 at the time he died, Owen is now 17, and knows firsthand how difficult it can be to adjust to Elsewhere; he spent much of his first year desperately trying to contact his wife, Emily.

Just as Owen and Liz are beginning to fall in love, the sudden death of Owen’s wife (now 36) threatens to derail their fledgling relationship. However, while Owen is initially overjoyed to be reunited with Emily, the two ultimately conclude that they have grown apart from one another. Unfortunately, by this point, Liz has elected to use something called the “Sneaker Clause,” which allows someone who died aged 16 or younger to return to Earth early. Owen races to try to stop Liz, but it’s too late: she is already in the River, which will carry her back to Earth.

Undeterred, Owen takes his boat out to search for Liz. Meanwhile, Liz herself has reconsidered her decision, but her struggles have only caused her to sink to the bottom of the ocean. Although she initially believes she doesn’t have the strength to swim back to the top, she eventually manages to do so when she sees what she believes to be her old and treasured pocket watch shining far above her. It turns out to be Owen’s boat, and the two share a happy life together on Elsewhere as they turn back into children. When Liz is “released” back into the River as a seven-day-old baby, she is content with her past life and excited about the next.