Genre: young-adult, contemporary
Pages: 288 (Nook NetGalley ARC edition)
Published: October 2011
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Tess and Lizzie are sisters, sisters as close as can be, who share a secret world filled with selkies, flying horses, and a girl who can transform into a wolf in the middle of the night. But when Lizzie is ready to grow up, Tess clings to their fantasies. As Tess sinks deeper and deeper into her delusions, she decides that she can’t live in the real world any longer and leaves Lizzie and her family forever. Now, years later, Lizzie is in high school and struggling to understand what happened to her sister. With the help of a school psychologist and Tess’s battered journal, Lizzie searches for a way to finally let Tess go.
Without Tess is a whirlwind of a novel - running the gamut from emotional to sweet to disturbing, all easily within a few pages. It's a forthright and honest look at youth, childhood, grief and mental illness without shying away from darker moments or themes. Told in the very real voice of Elizabeth "Lizzie" Cohen, the first-person perspective makes the events of the novel with Tess much more personal, much more visceral for the reader than a more removed third-person omniscient would have done. This super-involving story of Lizzie's life and of Tess's death is compelling and a must-read. This is a novel that was hard for me to read, but I never once felt like giving up on it.
Born two years before Lizzie, Tess is the center of the book around which everyone else operates. The relationship between the two girls is the most central and important one of the entire book: one does not feel whole without the other, in the beginning. Tess by herself is not a very sympathetic character - she's vibrant, fragile, unique and precocious but she's also removed, sullen and controlling. Ms. Pixley does an incredible job of presenting Tess as sympathetic through the eyes of her sister, but the reader can discern early on that there is just something off about Tess even before Lizzie understands. She's very creative and imaginative, but what is play and make-believe for Lizzie is life for Tess. Lizzie is much more grounded than her sister, from the beginning even as children. Intelligent but not motivated to succeed at school, Lizzie never really recovered from Tess's death - for obvious reasons. Fifteen years old at the time of the novel, Lizzie occasionally comes across as the traumatized ten-year-old she was when Tess killed herself. Lizzie herself is also hard to like, in her present-day incarnation, as opposed to the completely sympathetic and likeable version present in the flashbacks. Sympathy and empathy come easily for the character, but genuine affection was harder to find. Lizzie continually punishes herself for her sister's death, and even carries a journal belonging to Tess as a daily reminder of her guilt and grief.
A series of flashbacks, some quite lengthy and others a tad shorter, shed light upon Tess's problems through her whole life. The flashbacks are so extensive and well-done they present a more rounded picture of Lizzie's life growing up with - and under the thumb of - Tess. I really enjoyed the narrative structure of this novel; the juxtaposition of Lizzie's changing attitudes towards Tess as she ages is realistic, though sad for more-than-valid reasons. Poems from Tess are scattered between chapters relevant to the poem itself and lend an extra air of atmosphere and personality for both the book and Tess herself. Like I said, this can be a hard book to get through - I had to take several breaks because the author pulls no punches with the brutally honest portrayal of Tess and her intense illness.
I did have a few problems while reading Without Tess. There's a rather unsubstantiated subplot about religion and searching for God (Tess and Lizzie are Jewish with a very devoutly Catholic friend) that seems completely unnecessary and distracting from the actual plot. The quasi-philosophical wonderings of Tess in the midst of Tess's meltdown burdens the plot and the pacing for the more riveting main story. I found it off-putting when the girls' Christian friends urged them to pray "the right way" etc., and I also found it unreal for the ages of the girls at the time. Another thing that tried my belief was how the sisters talked/wrote at the time of Tess's death. Both definitely come across as much older than the intended 10/11. Their dialogue is far too mature, as are the themes and ideas of Tess's poetry. They both seemed more in the range of actual teenagers: 16-18 would be a more accurate representation.
Besides the few minor issues I had with this novel, I found Without Tess to be a great novel. It's emotionally stirring and completely heartfelt without stinting on the darker moments or glossing over Tess's issues. Lizzie's story might not be the easiest or the most fun to read, but it is rewarding to do so. Pick this one up if you're looking for a young-adult novel that isn't afraid to make you cry, or one to make you think.