Monday, 27 February 2017

On the Other Side by Carrie Hope Fletcher

Note: There will be a few spoilers in this review. Not major ones, I don't think, but it's hard to explain my thoughts properly without them (but you can skip over those and get my general opinion of the book without the specifics -- the spoilers are in between the "Timelessness" header and stop after the "END OF NEGATIVES" one).

On the Other Side
by Carrie Hope Fletcher

Summary: Evie Snow is eighty-two when she quietly passes away in her sleep, surrounded by her children and grandchildren. It's the way most people wish to leave the world but when Evie reaches the door of her own private heaven, she finds that she's become her twenty-seven-year-old self and the door won't open.

Evie's soul must be light enough to pass through so she needs to get rid of whatever is making her soul heavy. For Evie, this means unburdening herself of the three secrets that have weighed her down for over fifty years, so she must find a way to reveal them before it's too late. As Evie begins the journey of a lifetime, she learns more about life and love than she ever thought possible, and somehow , some way, she may also find her way back to her long lost love . . .
I am very conflicted about this book. It's one of those marmite books that people will either love or hate depending on their tolerance for sweetness in a story -- some love it, some will find it sweet to the point of being sickly. I think I fall somewhere in the middle, and I read the book on a good day so it worked for me.

Overall, I would say I liked it and I really enjoyed reading it (or rather, listening to it)...but I had some issues too (surprisingly not with it being sweet and twee to a fault).

I actually started reading the book last year and just could not get into it, then I had the chance to review the audiobook so I decided to give it another go. I don't know if it was the timing of it, or the change of format, but I actually really enjoyed listening to the book. The narration is excellent and I highly recommend the audible version.

Now...onto the issues (and I want to make it clear that, in spite of these issues, I don't think it was a bad book--and I'll get to the positives after the negatives are out the way--these were just the things that prevented me from loving it). I'll break this down into sections:


First of all, the time period of the book. Carrie has said that she didn't set it in a specific time period because she wanted Evie to be timeless, for people to relate to her story even years from now... The problem is, that didn't quite work.

The conflict of the story, the catalyst that sets everything else in motion, is a very dated issue and it's one that does not work in a contemporary setting and is way harder to relate to now. The gist of it:
Evie's mother doesn't want Evie to get a job as an artist (or any job at all, she's to be a wealthy stay at home wife and mother). She wants to arrange her marriage to a rich family friend whom she knows Evie doesn't love. And Evie eventually caves to this pressure...because her brother is gay and she wants to marry a rich guy so she can support him financially because she assumes their parents cut him out of their lives when he comes out (more on that ridiculousness soon).
If the story were set maybe 50-60+ years ago, an adult woman allowing her rich mother to dictate her life the way she does in the story would be believable and understandable and easy to sympathise with. Even the gay element would make sense because back then being an openly gay man was a criminal offence, and their rich parents would have had the power to have her brother sent to a psychiatric hospital to undergo awful "treatments" for being gay.

But that plot line does not work in a modern day setting. Evie and her brother could very easily move out and find jobs (she didn't even for one second consider compromising temporarily on her dream of being an artist and just getting a regular job to pay the bills). It might not be the comfortable lifestyle they're used to, but they would've been happy and free to live the lives they wanted.

A timeless story does not mean a story that isn't anchored to a certain point in time. There are books written or set hundreds of years ago that are timeless...not because the time period was left vague, but because at the heart of the stories are emotions and moral conflicts that are part of being human. They're timeless because in spite of all the differences between Then and Now, people still connect to the humanity in the stories. Deliberate removal of time period doesn't make a story timeless.

By refusing to choose a definitive time period for the story, it vastly altered the way the characters and their motivations and circumstances are interpreted.

Basically, I get what she was aiming for with the timelessness, but the execution of it doesn't quite work. The whole conflict in the story was really, really contrived and weak.

Her Brother

Now...the next issue. I really, really, really didn't like the weird straight saviour thing it had going on. Like I said above, it was so contrived and didn't sit well with me at all (but perhaps I'm just being over sensitive).

Evie gives up the man she loves because her brother is gay, and we're supposed to view it as this big noble sacrifice but it was just...eugh. She doesn't even give him a say in the matter, she just decides that because he's gay she has to support him financially which is so obliviously condescending. It didn't make sense and it really bothered me.

Had it been set in a time when someone could be locked up (in prison or in an institution) for being gay then that would've made sense. Then, her need to "protect" her brother would've been totally valid because she would have something she was actually trying to protect him from other than...well, not being rich anymore (and even that was just something she assumed would happen, not something certain).

Again, it just felt really condescending that she thought he wasn't capable of taking care of himself without her "sacrifice" -- he was a 20 year old man. He needed her love and her support, he did not need her to be his straight white night swooping in to save the day by sacrificing her own happiness so he could continue remain wealthy when he came out.

The implication that, had she not made her big sacrifice, he would've ended up on the streets or had to remain in the closet, unhappily marry a woman and live a miserable lie was just ridiculous. His safety wasn't in question, he would not have ended up on the streets if he came out. There was no reason, beyond financial gain, for her to do what she did to "protect" him.

Basically, him being gay was just used as a plot device in her story and I hated that. Vincent was a character who just happened to be bisexual, while Eddie was a Gay Character -- and a Gay Character whose whole story revolves around his gayness...and worse, it wasn't even about him, it was just used to create conflict in Evie's story.

So...That bugged me. A lot. It's not even that it was outright offensive representation, just kind of ignorant, but it bothered me a lot (even more so after reading the novella and having her "selflessness" perpetuated even further).


Beyond those things, there was a lot I really liked about the story.

The characters were sweet and easy to care about, and I absolutely loved that Jim's character was just a genuinely good guy who got along with Vincent because I hate when characters are vilified for no other reason than they're seen as competition to the love interest (or main character) of the story -- life, and people, are more complex than that and I like that the story showed those complexities.

I loved that LGBTQ+ characters were included, especially the fact that the love interest of the story was a bisexual guy which doesn't happen often in fiction (although the gay representation was kind of problematic, as mentioned above).

And the magical realism...for the most part, I loved it (some bits were a little unoriginal, like there's a scene that is really similar to a thing that happens in Once Upon a Time). It's not the type I'd usually read -- most magical realism I've read (and adored) has been thoroughly set in our world, just with magical elements casually woven into it... This one, it felt like it kind of straddled the line between fantasy and magical realism, but I liked it.

Overall, the book is really cute. I'd rate it 3.5 stars out of 5 (if I'm rating the audiobook specifically, I'd rate it 4 stars out of 5 purely for how much I enjoyed the performance -- I'd definitely listen to any audiobooks Carrie narrates in future). I do look forward to seeing more of Carrie's books in future, in spite of the issues I had with this one.


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