Greensleeves, Eloise Jarvis McGraw

Omens are medieval.  But – so are masks and dominoes, and a merrie singing cuckoo and a song called Greensleeves that will probably haunt me all my life.  To me that whole fading summer has rather the flavor of medieval music.  It had the shifting key changes, the gay, skipping rhythm and minor melody, and that unresolved, inconclusive end.

I never feel that any review I could write of Greensleeves will ever be adequate.  But I lent it to my friend Teacher to read during the hurricane, and she loved it a lot, and it made me jealous that I didn’t have it with me, so I read my mum’s copy, and damn, is it ever a good book.  It’s my favorite book, my desert-island book.

Greensleeves is about a girl called Shannon Lightley who has spent her whole life in transit, shuttling back and forth between separate parents, schools, and continents.  She’s eighteen years old, and when she pictures her entire life ahead of her, she is filled with dread and misery.  So her uncle Frosty offers her a job, to live in a little apartment and keep an eye on the people in the area.  He’s a lawyer, and he’s got a really weird will from one Mrs. Elizabeth Dunningham, who left people weird-shit bequests like scholarships to study subjects of no practical use and money to take skydiving lessons.  So Shannon’s job, basically, is to meet the people and check out whether there’s grounds for contesting the will.

It’s brilliant because Shannon is so tired of being herself that she decides to become someone different.  She changes her hair and her clothes and her accent and is a completely different person altogether.  And she meets all the people in the will – the taxi driver with the dependent family; the professor of Greek who yearns to go to Greece but keeps putting it off to finish writing his textbook; the overweight girl who wants to be a sexy flight attendant; the delightful Sherry who draws wavery cartoons and wants to know everything about everything.  And so forth.

This book is terribly successful at what it does – both in bringing to life all the characters, as well as Mrs. Dunningham, but as well in reflecting on the nature of cages and the things we let stop us from doing what we want.  Greensleeves resonates with me in a way that few books do, I suppose because Shannon’s so confused by life, and really – life is damn confusing.


Eloise Jarvis McGraw is so mysterious.  She has written what is probably my favorite book of all time ever – I wish she were still alive so I could tell her so, or that I had read Greensleeves earlier than 2000 instead of waiting until I was in high school, though it was a singular joy to suddenly discover it – but most of her other books, I can totally take or leave.  Heavy on the leave.  I remember quite liking The Moorchild, but I’ve never been able to get through Pharaoh, and many of her books for kids I just can’t be bothered with.  They’re not bad, they’re just not that interesting.  I loved Mara, Daughter of the Nile when I was twelve or so, but I think now I’m rereading it for nostalgic reasons rather than because it’s such a good book.  But then she has written Greensleeves, which completely speaks to me and contains possibly my favorite fictional couple since Jane Eyre & Edward Rochester.

If you read it, tell me what you thought.  You will of course love it.  Nobody could not love it.  I wish J.K. Rowling would read it and then shortly before the release of whatever her next book is, I wish that she would say, “You know what’s a good book?  Greensleeves.  Wish that were in print,” and then two days later it would be BAM back in print and probably optioned for a movie, as was the case with I Capture the Castle (for which, may I say, very very many thanks, J.K. Rowling).  I would rather have Greensleeves back in print than The Ghost of Opalina, and that’s saying something.

(In selfish terms I’d rather have The Ghost of Opalina, because I don’t own my own copy of The Ghost of Opalina and I do have a copy of Greensleeves – though I always want to buy more copies of it, just in case.  Backup copies.  You never know what’s going to happen.  What if I got in a huge fight with one of my friends and they decided to hit me where it hurts and shred Greensleeves?  YOU NEVER KNOW WHAT WILL HAPPEN.)

Anyway.  Read it.  I swear.  I wouldn’t lie to you.

20 thoughts on “Greensleeves, Eloise Jarvis McGraw

  1. I love the quote you used to open the review! I love the enthusiasm in your recommendation, too, and have added to my list. Thanks, Jenny. And thanks for the concern about Gustav!

  2. It might be a better bet to get it from the library – it was never that popular a book, so it’s out of print and a bit hard to find. Oh, but so worth it!

    (Watch, after all my talking about Greensleeves, you’ll buy it and hate it.)

    (I’m kidding. Nobody could hate it. It’s wonderful.)


  3. I can’t wait to check out some of the titles you recommended. I’ve read quite a few book review websites and never could get into them. I’ve added you to my bookmarks and can’t wait till your next review. 🙂

    I’m right in Hurricane Harbor, as well.

  4. After reading your review, I grabbed my copy and started reading it again, and within about eight seconds I got dragged in so completely that I was dazed and confused when the phone rang. Maybe I should use it to get thru Hurricane Ike, if it’s that dream-world inducing!

  5. I was very excited to find your review because I have shared your enthusiasm for this novel since I serendipitously plucked a copy from a shelf of books that my junior high library was giving away. This would have been in summer of 1990, I believe. I was thirteen, the perfect age at which to read it, and I must have reread it six or seven times before going to college. The various re-readings are linked in my memory to very specific feelings and experiences throughout adolescence. To my great consternation, I no longer have my copy. It would really be so lovely to see the book rescued from oblivion.

  6. Oh, I’m so pleased that someone else has read this book! It really is my favorite book in the world, and I’ve never met anyone who has read it without having it recommended to them by some member of my family.

    I promise that if I ever become wealthy, I will use my money to have this book put back in print. Then everyone can enjoy its brilliance.

  7. *big eyes* Wait, honestly? Holy crap, this is very exciting! I was thinking you’d get it from the library if you got it at all! That book is damn expensive to order. Oh goody, I really hope you like it!

  8. I am nearing my fifties and have read the German version of Greensleeves about 35 years ago, I found it in the library. And I just loved it. And my best friend also found the book in her library – and just loved it. As it has not in print in Germany for more than 30 years we both have just a copied version.
    I found this page on my search on information about Eloise J McGraw and I am really delighted to see that some other people in the world share my enthusiasm.

  9. I love Eloise Jarvis McGraw’s books — Mara Daughter of the Nile being my favorite (although I may be in the same position as you. At this point, there’s so much nostalgia and emotion wrapped up with it that I can’t tell anymore. But I LOVE it.)

    …the two that I have never been able to read, but wanted to, were Pharoah and Greensleeves. I moved recently and found them at my library. Waded through Pharoah, but it is now the only McGraw book that I have read and not altogether cared for. There’s some good stuff in there, but on the whole it just doesn’t pull together. …Then I read Greensleeves. It was totally unexpected… it seems in an entirely different vein than any other of her books. And it is wonderful. I came online hoping to miraculously find a cheap copy… and found your review instead. So I thought I’d share my experience 🙂

    I love how it starts out with a farfetched concept, but by the time you’ve finished it is undeniably beautifully real. The decisions that she must face really resonant, personally.

    • I’ve tried to read Pharaoh at least five times over the years, and I’ve never been able to finish it. I was so excited when I found out it existed, because I thought it’d be like another Mara, and it was such a disappointment.

      But yeah, Greensleeves is wonderful, I’m always excited to hear from others who’ve read it! I hope you’re able to find a copy soon.

  10. I am 53 years old and I first read Greensleeves in Junior High in 1970. I discovered it when I worked in the School Library in 7th grade, and continued to check it out to read it over and over again those two years. Over the years since I have periodically searched for it but was hampered by my in ability to remember the title or author. The last couple of days the melody to ‘What Child is this?’ (‘Greensleeves’) has been playing in my mind over and over- while the book kept coming to mind. Last night it all came together, enough so that at 5:30 am on a Saturday I had to get up and search for it online. What a great book. I wish I’d had it for my daughters to read. I’d love to read it again. I’ll be haunting ebay and library sales.

    • Hi Janice! I hope you’re able to find a copy again — might you at least be able to find a copy at the library that your daughters could read? I’m always hoping they’ll put it back in print, of course. I sometimes daydream about finding a copy and sending it to JK Rowling and having her talk about it until they put it back into print like they did The Little White Horse and I Capture the Castle. :p

  11. I suddenly had the impulse to search on Amazon to see whether this was in print and of course it wasn’t, but what wonderful comments from other people who loved this book as much as I did and do! I broadened my search to Google and it led me here — only the day after Janice! Myself, I’m 50 now and I read the book in the Seventies, too. I’ve read it over and over, well I’ve inhabited it, lived in it, as it sounds like so many others have, too. I wonder if there’s a discussion forum or a Facebook page for Greensleeves anywhere? Thanks to Jenny for the original post!

    • I’ve never found a discussion page for it, but everyone I know who has read this book has loved it. It’s such a good book! I reread it at least once a year and never get tired of it.

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