I can’t recall where I heard of American Elsewhere, but after a few months on my to-read list, I got around to it over the holidays. I had heard it compared to the popular podcast, Welcome to Night Vale, which I listed to for about a year before giving up due to a lack of plot progress. I think that the comparison is apt in the best possible way and that the book provides in a riveting way what the podcast failed to deliver. The book bends genres into an interesting mix – part horror, part sci-fi, part mystery.
The storyline centers on Mona, an ex-cop who learns upon her father’s death that she has inherited a home that belonged to her mother in a town called Wink, New Mexico. Upon arriving in Wink (which curiously doesn’t appear on any maps) she finds a beautiful small-town utopia where residents live outwardly perfect lives but harbor deep secrets they can’t discuss and who never go out at night. As Mona works to unravel the mystery of the town, she learns that there is much more to it, her past, and her than meets the eye.
At 688 pages, American Elsewhere has a detailed and gradually unraveling plot that moves between the POVs of several key characters. Chapters frequently end with questions that make you want to keep going, but usually stop short of infuriating cliffhangers. Its descriptions are very vivid, which is great when it describes the lush lawns and bright colors of Wink or the stark beauty of the New Mexico desert. It’s less so when it describes some of Wink’s more creepy residents or violence in fights. Some of those passages turned my stomach, but not to the extent that I didn’t want to keep reading.
I thought Mona was a great character – stoic but not devoid of feelings and a bit humorous. Her past is troubled and while at a surface glance she resembled the stereotypes of the “damaged woman protagonist” (she’s divorced, drinks a lot and has had her fair share of meaningless hookups) the book doesn’t wallow in voyeuristic descriptions, but instead presents her as a strong, capable person who has made mistakes and hopes to get a second chance with her new home in Wink. The theme of mother-daughter relationships runs strongly through the plot and also fleshes out Mona’s character a lot. I didn’t pay attention to the cover when I downloaded the book to my Kindle, so I was pretty surprised at the end to discover it was written by a man – if that tells you anything about how I thought Mona was written.
It’s not a perfect story – some characters are built up, never to really do anything. Others make what seemed to me to be abrupt changes in opinion or motivation that seem to come out of left field to help the plot. I think some parts could be edited down or out, but that would be more to streamline the plot slightly, rather than to remove things that are in and of themselves bad. Nevertheless it’s a great and engaging story that offers plenty of surprises and satisfying plot payoff at the end.