The Elizas by Sara Shepard
My Rating: 3.5/5 TARDISes
Date Published: April 17th, 2018
Publisher: Atria Books
Pages: 352 pages
Synopsis: When debut novelist Eliza Fontaine is found at the bottom of a hotel pool, her family at first assumes that it’s just another failed suicide attempt. But Eliza swears she was pushed, and her rescuer is the only witness.
Desperate to find out who attacked her, Eliza takes it upon herself to investigate. But as the publication date for her novel draws closer, Eliza finds more questions than answers. Like why are her editor, agent, and family mixing up events from her novel with events from her life? Her novel is completely fictional, isn’t it?
The deeper Eliza goes into her investigation while struggling with memory loss, the closer her life starts to resemble her novel until the line between reality and fiction starts to blur and she can no longer tell where her protagonist’s life ends and hers begins.
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review*
This is a spoiler-free review.
Though I’ve known about her work for years, this is the first novel by Sara Shepard that I’ve ever read—and I ended up being pleasantly surprised by this particular story. It is a pretty solid young adult thriller. Being quite a huge fan of suspenseful mysteries—particularly any type with unreliable or biased narrators—this caught my attention immediately. I am much more used to reading adult psychological thrillers, and this is not quite on par with the plot structure and intensity of many of those. As it is a young adult novel, it is a bit less complex and much lighter, so it’s important to note that going in. However, The Elizas is an entertaining and heart-pounding story that is sure to hook its intended audience.
In this novel, we follow a young woman named Eliza Fontaine, a debut novelist whose book release date is rapidly approaching. But life takes a strange turn when she is pulled from the bottom of a hotel pool. Her family believes it to be just another suicide attempt—she insists it was an attempted murder. With only one person on her side, and what seems like the whole world trying to convince her she’s just insane, Eliza must investigate the attack herself.
However, as she struggles to regain lost memories, every avenue she explores only ends up raising even more questions. And suddenly, her novel is starting to sound less like a story and more like her life. Told in chapters that alternate between Eliza’s point of view and excerpts from her book, The Dots, the parallels become undeniable, and the line between reality and fiction becomes increasingly blurry.
I’ll admit, it took me quite some time to fully immerse myself in this novel. The first half of Eliza’s story plays out very slowly, and is often times extremely repetitive. This makes sense in the grand scheme of things, since we are primarily dealing with her attempting to regain memories she cannot seem to unlock. But I still feel that her plotline is in need of more events—however small—to help us become more invested in her as a character. For awhile, I found myself being much more interested in the excerpts from The Dots instead of the main storyline, though both are equally important.
The narrative came across as a bit choppy to me in the beginning—it feels like things are repeating and going nowhere, there is a sudden heightening of the tension, and then we are back to the same circumstances. This is obviously congruent with the situation of someone dealing with memory loss, so I completely understand the effect that Shepard is going for. However, I do wish there had been a tiny bit more added to Eliza’s experiences, just to gradually pull the reader deeper into her life throughout the novel as a whole.
Unreliable narrators are, by nature, inconsistent, and always add a good amount of confusion into the process of getting to know who they are, as well as what is truly going on. Eliza is especially unpredictable all the way through—but at the start, her personality comes across like Shepard can’t decide what to do with her instead of what might be naturally erratic for her mental state. In general, though, I do think Shepard really captures and deals with all the physical and mental health aspects of this novel clearly and believably.
Even with the initial lagging of the main plotline, Shepard manages to build quite a lot of suspense in both stories. She sprinkles just enough intrigue into most of the early chapters, and I was always at least a little curious to find out what would happen next. The switching between Eliza’s point of view and the excerpts from The Dots added a great deal to the tension building up as things progressed. And, despite it being a little rocky at first, I did consistently become more and more hooked.
That second half though—oh boy. I was absolutely riveted to every page. Every aspect of the story escalates so quickly, and even though I had predicted some of the ending, it still had me on the edge of my seat. For me, Shepard ended in the strongest way possible—she made every last bit pack a punch, and threw in a few surprisingly powerful twists. Though it is not hard to guess most of what is going on and roughly how things will shake out, there are plenty of details that you most likely will not see coming. That, coupled with the strength of the overall reveal, truly enriches the novel as a whole.
Shepard also does a relatively good job with her character creation. They are all very clearly described and, aside from Eliza, have static personalities the whole way through. This means that not all of the characters are very multi-dimensional, but they are still depicted well and fit very nicely into the plot. Eliza is definitely a dynamic character—our view of her is constantly changing and building until everything is fully revealed in the end. And the majority of the relationships between Eliza and the others are highly realistic and comprehensible.
The one element that I never got fully on board with was the romance. In the first place, it was a severe case of insta-love. When they first meet, Eliza goes from describing him like he is sort of gross and creepy to abruptly feeling incredibly turned on basically by her sudden thought of them having sex. Over the short time they initially spend together, she goes back to showing little interest in him, while he is awkwardly proclaiming his undying love for her. And voila, they are now a couple. Though their relationship was sweeter toward the end, I spent most of it trying to comprehend how it happened, while occasionally feeling mildly disturbed.
I found Shepard’s writing style to be fairly strong. It didn’t particularly stand out or completely captivate me, but it flows well for the narrative she weaves and is very easy to read. She crafts a good mystery, following up on all the various threads to the point were I couldn’t personally think of anything left completely unexplained. Shepard also writes very cinematically—her descriptions are vivid, and the interactions between characters were stellar. We are able to clearly visualize everything playing out, and distinctly feel the clarity that Eliza is slowly experiencing.
Overall, if this sounds good to you—or if you’re looking for a quick thriller—I would highly recommend giving this novel a try, especially if you are a young adult reader. While, like I said, it’s not going to have the intensity and depth of an adult psychological thriller, and it isn’t entirely unpredictable, it really does have a lot going for it. It is gripping enough to pull a mystery fan in, and just chilling enough to make for an entertaining read. As for me, I ended up enjoying this story more than I thought I would, and I am definitely interested in reading some more of Shepard’s work.