I recently finished Jason Gurley’s originally self-published novel Eleanor and was generally unimpressed. I found it predictable and unconvincing, but as I’ve thought more about it I keep coming back to one particular area that left me wanting, and unsurprisingly it is theologically related. Spoilers follow so if you’ve been hoping to pick this one up, proceed with caution or just turn back now.
HERE THERE BE SPOILERS
The climax of the story comes with the revelation that Eleanor’s twin sister Esme (who died in a car accident at the age of six) and her unborn uncle still exist in some sort of Limbo between life and death, waiting—as in most traditional ghost stories—for a wrong to be put right. This wrong turns out to be the suicide of Eleanor’s grandmother and namesake (we’ll call her Eleanor I) while pregnant. Now, the means for setting things right involves rewinding time itself and helping Eleanor I choose to continue living, and this was the element I found most unconvincing. I don’t mind stories that mess with time; they can be quite entertaining. But in Eleanor there’s no explanation for how Esme and Patrick knew that such a thing was possible. They never saw any other being like themselves in this Limbo and so how could they discover it could be done? No one did it before them. There’s no one there to tell them how. There’s no one to demonstrate the principles or even explain the laws so they know how to break or bend them. Maybe I just missed the convincing explanation for how they knew or learned this, but Gurley lost me there.
They explain to Eleanor that if they rewind time the emotional damage her mother, Agnes, has suffered due to the pain of losing one of her daughters will still exist, but it will be without foundation. There will be no diagnosing why she feels the way she does because the accident will never have occurred and she will never have lost a daughter, so there may not be any good means for Agnes to know healing or restoration. When they ask Eleanor if she’s willing to go through with it anyway of course she agrees. Why wouldn’t she? They ask if she wants to improve her family’s life without any real consequence for her except needing to relive her whole life (minus the tragic accident). To be perfectly fair, it’s possible they don’t know how far back time will need to be rewound in order to set things right, so the lack of any real risk for Eleanor could make sense in that light, and this is precisely where the story leaves me wanting.
The stakes simply aren’t high enough because it seems to me that Gurley asks the wrong question. He makes the mistake of assuming Eleanor and Esme are necessary beings rather than contingent ones. They don’t have to exist unlike Eleanor I and Agnes whose narratives will pick up from the tragic moment that so shaped this family. If time is rewound, Agnes will then have her whole life to live, and that life will be radically different because Eleanor I will still be alive, will never have committed suicide, will not have left all the emotional wreckage in her wake, and will then be able to offer a different kind of presence and attention to Agnes. Basically, the story neglects to discuss the butterfly effect and for a story revolving around changing the past to leave this out is a serious shortcoming.
With all the changes that would take place, effectively making Agnes a completely different person in the new timeline, would Agnes still have married Paul? Would they have even met? Even if they did, how likely is it that the exact combination of sperm and egg would combine to form Eleanor and Esme?
So it seems to me the right question, the high stakes question that would have transformed this book’s ending significantly, would have been, “Eleanor, are you willing to risk your very existence for the chance to give your mom a happy life? If you do this, you may never actually come to exist. Is her happiness worth the risk? In light of how she’s blamed you for your sister’s death, hating and shunning you for the past eight years—the most formative years of your childhood—is her healing, health, and happiness worth it?” In short, “Do you love her enough to risk so much?”
Now that is interesting question. That makes her choice to move forward truly courageous. That makes her a self-sacrificial hero like Frodo who saved the Shire but not for himself. Frodo’s was a true act of love and heroism, of sacrifice and generosity. His decision cost something, and its price was high. Turning Eleanor’s choice into one like Frodo’s transforms her character into someone completely different. It turns her into someone who is willing to lay down her life for her enemy, who truly loves one who hates her—it turns her into someone who lives and loves as Jesus did.