My Life on Earth and Elsewhere
For someone several lifetimes away from young adulthood, and even decades distant from when teenagers roamed my own home, books in the Young Adult Fantasy genre are largely a mystery.
How does an adult author, particularly one without teenagers in the house, get into the mind and voice of a young adult?
Whatever literary alchemy that transformation requires, the distinguished adult novelist Peggy Payne has provided a refreshing introduction with My Life on Earth and Elsewhere, her first foray into the genre.
The story is told in the first person by a 16-year-old girl named Darcy, an only child, living in Raleigh, N.C., not far from where Payne herself lives.
And, given that Payne’s previous novels contain a fair amount of discussion of the search for spirituality, including Eastern faith traditions, it is not surprising that a key plot element is an adult’s crisis of faith.
The news that Darcy’s parents—mostly her college professor father, who seems to have fallen into a serious, spiritual search—have decided to separate sets off a metaphysical crisis. Their shaken daughter suddenly has an out-of-body experience, floating 30 feet into the air.
“I was rising, weightless, lifting off of the seat,” Darcy says. “How could this be happening? All the heaviness in me vanished. I was floating completely outside myself . . . Everything is nice up here, the air smooth and perfect. In fact, this whole experience feels weirdly natural.”
Darcy is smart, but not brilliant. She acknowledges that her astral episode may have been foreshadowed by her recent reading of John Fowles’ supernatural classic, The Magus. Her reaction approximates what a sensitive, precocious teen under stress might sound like.
“It is a shock,” she reflects later. “It knocked me out of myself. Or made me hallucinate . . . I haven’t recovered from whatever that was, and I’m being clobbered by whatever this is.”
What makes this novel so compelling, and so charming, is that focuses on that point where the natural encounters the supernatural. Darcy, much like many readers, is not certain what in her new life is real and what is astral projection.
Thus, in many ways the story is anomalous—a down-to-earth fantasy, if that constitutes a genre.
This is deft, accessible storytelling, the mark of a sure hand at the keyboard, as the real intelligently interrogates the surreal. Anxious to understand what is happening to her, Darcy attends a semi-serious, academic conference on parapsychology, although it provides no definitive answers.
There is, of course, a boy—or a boy spirit?—who comes into Darcy’s life, and her bedroom. Risto is sweet, handsome, and in love with Darcy, perhaps the ultimate imaginary friend. The only thing that sets him apart is from her high school peer group is his speech pattern—Risto eschews most contractions, making him sound like Data, the character played by Brent Spiner on Star Trek.
Still, as dreamy as Risto is, Darcy continues to wonder about him, with a refreshing sense of humor. “I think he is real, and all the stuff that’s happened is real,” she says. “But the scariest thought: that’s probably how people with schizophrenia feel.”
Still, Risto is not perfect; his ardor for Darcy cools temporarily when she gets a new haircut. Some things about a teen’s life, even in fantasy, never change. Also, her nonstop gut-checking.
“What is happening?” Darcy asks. “This is seriously bizarre. It has to end. I can’t let myself slide into fantasy, no matter how real it seems. I’d lose everything else. I’d be sitting and staring, imaging I’m having a life. This whole episode—the boy, the floating up in the air, his presence in my room—was a temporary blip. It happened because of extreme stress from my family falling apart.”
Darcy continues to be torn about her romance with Risto, “wanting him to come and, at the same, thinking it’d be better if he never showed up again. . . . Worse than ridiculous, I’m acting completely insane. He cannot be real. Waiting for somebody who cannot be real is proof of insanity. I am slipping. . . . But if I were only imagining him, I’d be able to get him here any time I wanted. And I can’t.”
There are occasional references to the existence of sex, among adults and between teens, at the margins of the story. But no portrayals graphic enough to incur the wrath of the latest crop of parent book banners.
My Life on Earth and Elsewhere should be safe enough, and welcome enough, on school library shelves.