Eleanor West runs a boarding school for teens who don’t fit in. The secret is, they aren’t just misfits, they have spent time in a fairy world and desperately want to go back. They are not changelings or half-fae, they are human children who disappeared and came back different. The school is both a refuge and a place to learn how to get a long in world that is no longer considered home.
Nancy had been a sunny child who laughed and wore colors until she found a doorway to the Halls of the Dead. She came back still, quiet, and wearing black and white. Though all the teens share the experience of leaving this reality and then returning, they have very different experiences in the reality they have left. Some worlds are nonsense, some are logic, some are mirrors, or prisms. Some are spider kingdoms, some are lands of skeletons. Even in this school of outsiders and misfits, the kids bunch into cliques and shun the kids who are too different. Nancy, having lived among the dead, is not an easy fit with the other students.
The novella is surprisingly violent. Everyone at the school has been rejected. Some by their families, others by both their families and their other reality. Often the fairy worlds they visited were violent.
“The King was my enemy, but he was the first adult to see me clearly in my entire life. The court of the Rainbow Princess was shocked, and they threw me down the next wishing well we passed. I woke up in a field in the middle of Nebraska, back in my ten-year-old body, wearing the dress I’d had on when I first fell into the Prism.” The way he said “Prism” left no question about what he meant: it was a proper name, the title of some strange passage, and his voice ached around that single syllable like flesh aches around a knife.”
It would be easy to read this as a metaphor for the adolescence and mental health. McGuire is too good a writer for anything to be a simple correlation. Of course, gender expression and sexual orientation are not mental health issues, but they are too frequently grounds for rejection. The violence and rejection are balanced out with humor and kindness.
Every Heart a Doorway may be a short read, but it is powerful. The yearning to return home is visceral. The longing to return to a place where you felt at Home was occasionally frighteningly relatable.
She could learn to be happy here, if she had to. But never completely. That would be too much to ask.