Every Heart a Doorway
In under 200 pages, McGuire builds a quiet and interesting world that manages to fuse children’s portal fantasy stories with gothic splendor and darkness. Every Heart a Doorway is the tale of Nancy, who returned from a trip to the Halls of the Dead, a mythical-seeming underworld, and finds herself unable to adapt to the world she was born to.
Her parents send her to a school supposedly for children with her sort of mental instability—but it turns out to be a school for children who hope to return to the worlds they returned from, a whole school of kids who experienced epic adventures in other worlds, only to find themselves back home and unsuited to the normal world.
She meets a boy who traveled to Fairy, another who fell in love with a Skeleton Girl in an underworld different from hers, twins who wound up in a horror movie world, one apprenticed to a mad scientist, the other beloved of a vampire king. Her roommate went to a world of nonsense like a cross between Wonderland and Candyland. And all of them want to go back.
Then someone starts killing students. It goes from a strange old-fashioned place to a full gothic abode complete with mysterious deaths, shady grounds, and unhappy locals.
The story is fairly straightforward through the horror-story who-done-it mystery, but the coming together of so many strange other worlds, and the general sense of loss and longing that binds them in this one place, is expertly written. It's a story full of people who have been changed so much that they can't just be normal anymore, making friends and trying to come to grips with their loss—some better than others. The contrast of group therapy sessions with fantastic tales is clever and keeps things interesting.
But most interesting is how the book takes conventions of portal fantasy and YA gothic
and turns them just a little sideways. The book deals with what happens when you come back from Wonderland or Narnia or Fairy, which is usually when a fantasy book about those places ends. That's where this one starts. They've all been to other worlds, but only the twins went with anyone else and all worlds are different. The teachers at the school have created an axis to class the worlds on in an attempt to make sense of them all, something the typical portal fantasy doesn't get to.
Nancy, as close to the gothic innocent-girl trope as this story has, is asexual and the characters in the book take it in stride. Whatever start of a typical YA love triangle is there falls apart gracefully, because it’s not needed here. She doesn't have to choose between two boys because she doesn't want either, and that’s refreshing.
Another character is transgender and mostly barely commented on, it's just accepted. Others are ethnically diverse, various ages, various spins on gender, but what matters about them are these stories they come with, not the bodies they come in. And there’s never a leaden speech about diversity: they just are, and the story keeps going. In a book where everyone has had adventures no one else has seen, things like race and gender are swept up in the general acceptance of everyone at face value, and the few times when it's brought up, it is dealt with quickly. The point is the acceptance, the loss, the process of defining for yourself who you are—and the magic they've all been touched by and want back.
It's a sweet, quiet, gentle, poetic book, where kids too young for what they've been through are trying to do the best they can with not much guidance, and it's detailed and living enough that there could be a series of stories set in this school. Even if we never visit it again, though, this book is a gem, polished and clear and faceted in unusual ways. It's charming, and rich, and there's whimsy under the shadows of the gothic here.
As a novella, it's not a long read, but it's more than worth it and will give you a lot to think about when you encounter other stories about trips to strange otherworlds. And most of all, it's hopeful. People can find places where they belong even when they're strange and different. People can be accepted for who they are and who they want to be. No matter how strange your past or your identity, there are people out there who can understand you and love you anyway, even if those people aren't your family.