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Elders: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, March 5, 2013
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“Admits readers to a kind of inner sanctum. . . . McIlvain zeros in on the inner struggle, exploring the appeal of faith and the sorrow that comes with losing it."—New York Times
“Glows with the love and anger of a former believer. . . . Clear-eyed. . . . Finely paced, keenly observed, and ruefully honest.” —Boston Globe
"[A] classic in Mormon letters. . . . Excellent, Mormon-themed novels are few and far between. This is one of them.”—The Daily Beast
“McIlvain dissects the mix of need and ambition and genuine faith that fuel a disciplined devotion. . . . Earthbound. . . . Honest. . . . Builds to [a] drastic resolution.” —Slate
“Elders is a refreshingly earnest, clear-eyed, and self-assured debut by a young writer to watch. McIlvain wrestles with sturdy themes, conflicted characters, and big ideas—the stuff of classic literature. —Jonathan Evison, author of West of Here
“I’ve always wanted to read a novel about Mormon missions abroad, and McIlvain is the ideal writer to write it. The framework he provides is layered and fascinating, and inside it, the complex human drama plays out beautifully—these are memorable characters, and McIlvain shows them to us with compassion and honesty both.” —Aimee Bender, author of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
“Ryan McIlvain’s beautifully written first novel takes the reader inside a quest: the coming-of-age mission expected of young male Mormons. Elders reveals a world of self-denial, proselytizing and passionate faith very differently experienced by a young American and his Brazilian counterpart. For one, to succeed is to turn away; for the other, faith is survival itself. Elders, “seeking one star in a million, a golden elect,” arrives at the perfect moment.” —Jayne Anne Phillips, author of Lark & Termite
“A nuanced meditation on faith and commitment that has all the intensity of a stage play. Elders is a powerful and deeply moving debut from a gifted young writer.” —T.C. Boyle, author of San Miguel
“A thoughtful, carefully wrought story about the voids between belief and questioning, between loneliness and companionship, between home and far, far away.” —Ramona Ausubel, author of No One Is Here Except All of Us
“In graceful, deft prose, Elders explores how two very young men cope with the serious task they are charged to perform, and the close quarters they must share. Every sentence counts as the novel tracks their fraught intimacy, their sincere efforts, their doubts, their disappointments. This is a wise book about the strength of human relationships under the pressure of challenged faith. Ryan McIlvain offers the reader genuine hope.” —Alice Elliot Dark, author of In the Gloaming
“With strong, economical language, Ryan McIlvain has crafted a terrific story. From exotic Brazil to an even stranger America. These characters are presented fully and with great affection. I'm certain this is the first of many fine works from an important new voice.” —Percival Everett, author of Percival Everett by Virgil Russell
About the Author
Ryan McIlvain grew up in the Mormon Church and resigned his membership from it in his mid-twenties. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in many journals, including The Paris Review. A Stegner Fellow at Stanford from 2009 to 2011, he currently lives with his wife in Los Angeles.
Top customer reviews
I heard about this book on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. I have always been fascinated by Mormons. I grew up in a rural Southwest town, where I (a Roman Catholic, but really pretty secular, to be honest) was best friends with Mormons. I dated them, I stayed over at their houses, I went to "Sacrament Meeting" with them on Sundays, and I knew who the local missionaries were. I flirted with the idea of joining their church at a very lonely and difficult time in my late teen years, but I never for a split second could buy what they were selling. (I couldn't even buy what the Catholic Church was selling, and I came from a long line of devoted Catholics.)
Anyhoo, VERY INTERESTED in Mormons. That's my point.
So, I heard this interview on NPR and immediately bought the book. I was so taken with the author's story about he and his also-former-Mormon wife trying to Act Like Secular People. It really touched me--there was something very human, very earnest, and very recognizable to me.
The book is well written, of that there is no doubt. The characters are interesting, painfully human, and incredibly well-placed in their context. I found myself drawn to and repulsed by Elders McLeod and Passos, in an ebb and flow throughout the book. Mr. Mcilvain managed to grab hold of that elusive thread of humanity with his main characters. It is impressive and deftly done.
I devoured the details about missionary work. It is such a fascinating and peculiar human experience to essentially leave behind your entire life for two years, with the singular focus of converting others--often from another language and culture than your own--to believe in your religion. Knocking on doors, being rejected, pressing the reluctant... HARD. My impression is that it is arduous, trying, sometimes deeply rewarding, and not for the feint of heart.
So why not five stars? Well, this is where I come back around to where I started. And this may be a spoiler (not with plot details, but you'll know generally what to expect emotionally from the ending), so if you need to be completely surprised, don't read any further.
I just wanted to know What Happened. We get to the climax and there really is no resolution after that, no explanation of what happens to either of the missionaries after The Big Thing happens. Well, I guess I'm an American here, but I wanted the loose ends tied up. I wanted to know how Elder McLeod handled his choice, how he faced his family, and whether or not he stayed in the LDS church. (In my heart of hearts, I wanted so much to see this become a story of redemption out of a religion that was hollow for Elder McLeod--I admit that.) I wanted to know if Elder Passos ever really dealt with his grief over his mother's death, if he went to the U.S., and if he became the star in the LDS church that seemed to be his trajectory.
I just... wanted to feel some closure with these characters with whom I had connected. I know (really, don't we all?) that not all endings are happy, but when I read a book, I want to have An Ending. I want to know. I know, not literary of me. But I don't read books to reinforce that Life Sucks Sometimes, and Loose Ends Are All Over The Place. Thanks. I know that. When I read a book, I want to feel satisfied.
This book? It was gorgeously written, I couldn't wait to read it, but I was unsatisfied. If it weren't such a tremendous and tender portrait of humanity, I'd be giving it a lot fewer stars, but there you go...
Yes, the novel is indeed about hope as well as friendship, love of family, the struggle associated with trying to abide by the rules of a very strict religion-- no TV watching or ever going out alone for a young missionary-- the "sins" of the flesh (Elder McLeod hides a porno magazine in his desk drawer), the naive belief (on the part of Elder McLeod) that one can buck the rigidity of an authoritarian religion, the clash of cultures (Bishop Passos, although he so wants to attend Brigham Young University chaffs at the charity that Elder McLeon`s family offers to this "favela dweller"), the honest doubts and questions about one's faith.
Mr. McIlvain's prose is concise, spare and at times beautifully descriptive. In a room "the metal blinds let in sunlight that lay on the concrete floor in slowly broadening pinstripes." The fair-complexioned Elder Mcleon whom Elder Passos calls "Whitey" has skin like an "under-ripe strawberry." Elder Passos's anger gives out on him "like a candle flame extinguished in its own melt." And he thinks that Elder McLeod stomps out of a room "like a little boy dragging his baby blanket."
ELDERS is certainly a very fine first novel.