Book Review: Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

Every Heart a Doorway is a sort of interesting twin to The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home, which I reviewed yesterday. In many ways, they are very similar books, both being fairly sophisticated examinations of the children’s portal fantasy genre, but Seanan McGuire’s novella of course has sharper edges and a more nuanced message than Catherynne M. Valente’s middle grade masterpiece. Like Valente’s series, however, Every Heart a Doorway is a book that is absolutely necessary for its audience, which I would say is primarily teens and young adults, but ought to include basically everyone. It’s a book that many people will identify with, and those who don’t see themselves in its pages could probably stand to learn a few things from it.

While Valente offers her heroine the opportunity to stay in the world she has found a home in, McGuire turns her eye to the young people who don’t get to stay. Eleanor West is one such child, and she runs a boarding school for as many others like herself that she can collect. It’s here that main protagonist Nancy finds herself when she’s sent home from an underworld that she loved because the Lord of Death wanted her to be sure before she committed to staying forever. At Eleanor’s school, Nancy meets other young people like herself and learns more about the different possible worlds while she waits and hopes for her door to reappear. Most of all, Nancy learns that most people never do find their door again, and much of the book is dedicated to exploring the different ways in which Nancy and the other characters are dealing with this reality.

Whereas Valente’s Fairyland ultimately delivers a fantasy in which one can find harmony and unity by integrating different aspects of oneself and changing one’s world to suit, McGuire offers a very different solution to problems of belonging, predicated on the sad truth that sometimes, if we can’t change the world we live in, we have to leave it behind. It’s a bittersweet lesson, and it comes at a steep price, but it also comes with the assurance that it’s okay to leave. In some ways, it’s the ultimate “it gets better” message, but what McGuire gives us in Every Heart a Doorway is something much deeper and more nuanced than that platitude. For Nancy and her friends, things don’t always get better or easier, but they nonetheless have the strength to find joy and meaning in their lives regardless.

Every Heart a Doorway is a book about making the best of things, but it’s also a book about not being afraid to take chances and not feeling guilty about doing what is best for yourself. It encourages a sort of healthy selfishness that more people—specifically marginalized people, who are often expected to be absurdly self-sacrificing—ought to cultivate. There are no martyrs here. There are tragedies, but not inevitable ones, and the overall message is one of hope, though a much more complicated and ambiguous sort of hope than in Valente’s series. This is an altogether more grown-up book, and in all the best possible ways.

This review was based upon a copy of the book received from the publisher for review through NetGalley.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire”

  1. A serious question: How is this an “It Gets Better” story?

    Every single person in the school is aching to get back to their personal fairyland. It seems to override literally everything else in their life. Eleanor is haunted by it for her entire life. And, at the same time, it’s made clear: this is pretty much the best it’s going to get. Not horrible, but… the school doesn’t seem much of a place of joy or strength.

    And then (SPOILERS) the story undercuts even that, by giving primary characters the happy ending they’ve been insisting for the entire book doesn’t happen and that they shouldn’t look forward to. “It gets better!– if you’re a magic unicorn with author fiat.” If “better” is the school, it seems awful; if better is going back, it doesn’t seem like it does get better.

    I could see this as being about, not the aim, but the process of being in the middle of “things getting better.” Where, honestly, no matter how much better they’re going to get, they’ll still be pretty messed up for the foreseeable future. Is that more what you meant?

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    1. I think I read it as “better” being Nancy having the chance to go back and the freedom to determine for herself if she wanted to. I’ve always been uncomfortable with the whole “It Gets Better” thing in general because I generally feel like the world *doesn’t* get better, or not that much better, but that people only get better at living in it and coping or that people’s circumstances change as they grow up and have more options and more power over their own lives. Like, it’s hard to be a kid in an abusive family, but eventually, if you stick out this life thing, you can choose a new family of people who understand you.

      In hindsight, I think that might be a wrong interpretation of the book, though, since only Nancy, of all the book’s characters, ever gets that choice re: her door. I don’t know now. I think I’m gonna have to reread it before I read Down Among the Sticks and Bones.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. What you’re describing is definitely the vibe I got from the book at its start – a community of fellow-sufferers, all in pain, but also all learning to adapt to reality. It sucks, but it’s what we’ve got.

        The farther the book went, though, the less this seems to work. We actually have multiple characters who do get doors, or chances at doors, or substitute doors. And once we get to the first murder, adapting to normal life doesn’t get much thematic screen time :-/

        Liked by 1 person

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