Every Heart a Doorway (2016) by Seanan McGuire was a book I had not heard of and probably wouldn’t have chosen to read if left to myself. I would probably call it a young adult coming-of-age novella with fantasy elements. The reason I finally picked this up was because a friend of mine kept doggedly recommending it to our book club, month after month, until I could hardly say no.
Nancy is a brooding teenager, recently brought by her parents to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. It turns out that there are secret portals throughout the world. Sometimes people (primarily children) are able to find these doorways and transport to a different world. But sometimes they come back and cannot cope with trying to be “normal.” Their parents have seen their children come back, some of them having been missing for months or years. They don’t understand what’s happened to them or why their children can’t be like they were before. That’s where Eleanor West comes in. She is a “world” traveler herself and understands what they’re going through. She gives them a safe and understanding place to grieve and adjust.
Nancy has recently returned from some kind of underworld that involves ghosts, death, very little color, and very little movement. We meet her on her first day at Eleanor West’s home and follow her journey as she figures out how the school works and meets her fellow world travelers. It seems that there are innumerable worlds, some full of fairies and color while others are more like Nancy’s. She meets: Kade, thrown out of his fairy world for being not what they expected; Sumi, her excitable roommate; and Jacqueline and Jill, two twin sisters who had been living in something of a horror novel. When people start being gruesomely murdered, everyone’s safety and the possible longevity of the school is compromised.
I wanted to like this book and I was impressed by the beginning. It is very creative and original. I thought it was interesting to imagine that there were worlds out there where people could feel more at home than this world. It was a good metaphor for adolescence, when it is particularly easy to feel isolated and alone. Don’t most adolescents feel that they’ve experienced, or are experiencing, some things that their parents just don’t understand? And there are always those that will never quite fit in with this world. I thought this was a book for them.
But the second half of the book left me feeling disconnected. The worlds these kids went to sounded like nightmares. I simply could not relate to their yearning to go back. Sure, the worlds sometimes fit their personalities in broad strokes, but I had no wish to be them or experience those worlds. Who would want to transport themselves into a horror novel? And why would they give up their life and family to do that? I just couldn’t understand.
In addition, the murder mystery felt kind of tacked on. I would have been happy to simply learn more about the kids and what their lives were like. We didn’t actually get much time with them before people started dying. Most of the kids were simply caricatures and foils antagonizing Nancy and her friends. In the end, it felt like there were a bunch of unnecessary murders by a character I couldn’t understand and didn’t care much about.
I left this book feeling disappointed and confused. What I thought would be a stirring example of oddball kids finally knowing a place where they truly belonged, turned out to be an unrelatable, fantastical murder mystery. To be fair, my friend loved this book, and I know there are others who appreciate it. If it sounds like something up your alley, please don’t let my tepid review stop you.
“You’re nobody’s rainbow. You’re nobody’s princess. You’re nobody’s doorway but your own, and the only one who gets to tell you how your story ends is you.” (168)
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