Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Book Review: There's No Place Like Here, by Cecelia Ahern

There's No Place Like Here, by Cecelia Ahern

I once read a description of Cecelia Ahern's books that said her fiction was akin to modern fairy tales for grownups. (As if regular fairy tales are solely the property of youngsters.) In a Q & A on her website, how Ahern addresses this is the perfect introduction into the premise of There's No Place Like Here:

"My opinion of a fairy tale was of a story that lacked realism, in which female characters are "rescued" by men, whisked off their feet from the boredom of their mundane lives, proposed to, and brought to a castle where they would live happily ever after. This is not the case with my books. I want them to be about strong women. They are about real people with ordinary, everyday struggles who are faced with having to embark on a journey of self-discovery.

As soon as my characters begin to grasp who they are, and how and why it is that they've reached this point in their lives, then they realize they must heal themselves. Self-healing is extremely important in my stories, and while there are strong male characters in the books, they aren't the handsome princes that have come to save the day. Their role is to help the characters help themselves. People learn about themselves through interaction and through their relationships with others; obviously nobody can do it alone, so the love interests are instrumental in helping the characters look at themselves and their own behavior but then eventually helping themselves.

How a good fairy tale will make you feel after you've finished it is full of hope --- the hope that no matter what we're faced with, we can get through it. While the books don't always end on a "happily ever after" note, they do reach a point where they realize they have the strength, confidence, and ability to continue. And that is the modern twist."

There's No Place Like Here fits that description admirably well. Ahern's fourth novel is the story of Sandy Shortt, the owner of a missing-persons agency in Ireland. Sandy's had an obsession with lost things ever since a neighbor (and childhood nemesis) disappeared when they were 10. As an adult, she pours herself into her work helping families of people who have gone missing and her workaholic tendencies of disapppearing for days at a time have cost her relationships with her parents and a love interest, the school counselor who helped her as a teenager.

So when Sandy really does go missing, no one really notices or cares much - except Jack Ruttle, who has hired Sandy to find his missing brother, Donal. Convinced that she holds the keys to the answers he seeks, Jack embarks on a search for Sandy that brings him into contact with each person in Sandy's life.

Similarly, Sandy is on her own journey of discovery, stumbling upon a world (not too far off from the one that we know) that simultaneously reunites and acquaints her with the very people she's spent her life looking for.

"It was a scene I was familiar yet unfamiliar with all at the same time because everything I could see was composed of recognizable elements from home, but used in such very different ways. We hadn't stepped backward or forward, we had entered a whole new time. A great big melting pot of nations, cultures, design, and sound mixed to create a new world. Children played; market stalls decorated the road and customers swarmed around them. So much color, so many new sounds, unlike any country I'd been in. A sign beside us said HERE."

There's a mystical quality and a subtle religious element to There's No Place Like Here. For example, it's not much of a stretch to view Here as a symbolic interpretation of Heaven. (I mean, c'mon, one of the characters is a carpenter named Joseph.) Despite that, Ahern manages this aspect while avoiding becoming too heavy-handed.

"I'm very interested in the idea that we are not alone on this earth," she states on the interview posted on her website. "I write books about lives, and in our lives are men, women, children, animals, and the others we feel around us. I'm aware that many people are turned off when this subject is broached but it's as simple as when, after losing a loved one, people openly admit to feeling that their loved ones are still with them."

The novel is told in flashbacks as well as in the present, and Ahern weaves these together very nicely. There are, however, some elements within the plot that don't quite get answered at the conclusion. We see a relationship developing between Sandy and her guidance counselor at school, which doesn't come into fruition until Sandy is an adult (thankfully), but the reader is left not quite knowing what happened with Sandy and Gregory in the middle. We can guess, which is perhaps what Ahern wants us to do.

There's No Place Like Here, Ahern's fourth novel (I think), is the second one of hers that I've read and enjoyed. The first one that I read was If You Can See Me Now, which I loved. (Anyone who has been around a child with an imaginary playmate will never dismiss the notion of invisible friends again after reading that one). Both are highly recommended and make for light, entertaining reading while being thought-provoking and viewing this world in a different light. If you're looking for this type of read this summer, give Cecelia Ahern's books a try.

My rating for There's No Place Like Here: 4 out of 5 stars (simply because I would have liked to have known a little more about the relationship between Sandy and Gregory!)

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