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The Elizas


The Elizas

When Eliza Fontaine is pulled out of a hotel pool in Palm Springs, everyone assumes the worst: another suicide attempt. At first glance, Eliza, a promising young writer whose first novel is about to be published, doesn’t seem to have any reason to kill herself. But she’s had a history of similar plunges into bodies of water --- a hotel hot tub, the rolling Pacific surf. Those previous attempts to end her life were triggered by a brain tumor, now supposedly cured.

Eliza’s family believes she either stumbled into the pool by accident (she can’t swim) or, worse, deliberately threw herself in. While her memories of the night are fuzzy, Eliza is convinced she didn’t try to end her life. “Somebody pushed me into that pool,” she says desperately. But who could do such a thing? As Eliza sets out to determine what really happened, she starts noticing some unnerving similarities between her life and the events of her novel, forcing her to confront her past in order to discover the truth about what’s really happening.

"Strip away the more bizarre plot contrivances, and you’ll find [Shepard has] hidden a tale of lonely people craving connection and troubled victims struggling to overcome the past."

Shepard made her mark with the massively popular young adult suspense series, Pretty Little Liars. THE ELIZAS is her first foray into writing for adults, but she sticks close to what she knows, turning out a fast-moving, convoluted thriller centered on a prickly female protagonist. (Eliza is in her early 20s, not so far removed from the teenagers who populated Shepard’s earlier books.) She has produced a quintessential beach read, a book with a twisty plot and a story-within-a-story that will keep readers turning the pages, even as they’re shaking their heads in disbelief. That’s because it’s hard to imagine any of the events of THE ELIZAS taking place in the real world, though those willing to give up on logic and enjoy the ride will likely be entertained nonetheless.

Readers will also have to put up with Eliza herself, who isn’t in the business of making people like her. She’s different from other people, you see, and it’s not just because of her medical history. Shepard doesn’t hesitate to lay on the quirky color in the book’s first few chapters in an effort to show just how offbeat Eliza is. She owns a miniature carousel decorated with “psychotic zebras, a pissed-off looking swan, and a lion without a head” as well as a “dusty RCA Theremin” she’s never bothered to learn to play, among other oddball curios. Her childhood idol, we learn, was Wednesday Addams. While at times distracting, those details do illustrate how Eliza, still traumatized by her illness, deliberately sets herself apart from those around her. Meanwhile, her love interest Desmond, the man who rescued her from the pool, drives a homemade Batmobile and makes it a point to tell people, “I drink a lot of absinthe. The real kind, not the tripe they sell here in the States.”

As Eliza stumbles through her life, we’re treated to a novel within a novel, The Dots, her debut book. It tells the story of a young girl, Dot, who is suffering from a brain tumor and her close relationship with her glamorous yet troubled aunt Dorothy. The parallel narratives start to converge, and fact and fiction blur as Eliza gradually pieces together the truth about her life and the book she has written.

Shepard, though based in Pennsylvania, makes effective use of her Southern California setting, as the story moves from the posh desert resorts of Palm Springs to pedestrian L.A. suburbs and the faded elegance of old Hollywood hotels and steakhouses. The result is a funhouse mirror version of a classic California noir, where desperation and despair lurk just beyond the glitz. Strip away the more bizarre plot contrivances, and you’ll find she’s hidden a tale of lonely people craving connection and troubled victims struggling to overcome the past. Unfortunately, that story is obscured by the book’s more outlandish tricks.

Reviewed by Megan Elliott on April 20, 2018

The Elizas
by Sara Shepard