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Wednesday, November 2, 2011

'The Sky is Everywhere' by Jandy Nelson

From the BLURB:

Seventeen-year-old Lennie Walker, bookworm and band geek, plays second clarinet and spends her time tucked safely and happily in the shadow of her fiery older sister, Bailey. But when Bailey dies abruptly, Lennie is catapulted to center stage of her own life - and, despite her nonexistent history with boys, suddenly finds herself struggling to balance two. Toby was Bailey's boyfriend; his grief mirrors Lennie's own. Joe is the new boy in town, a transplant from Paris whose nearly magical grin is matched only by his musical talent. For Lennie, they're the sun and the moon; one boy takes her out of her sorrow, the other comforts her in it. But just like their celestial counterparts, they can't collide without the whole wide world exploding.

This remarkable debut is perfect for fans of Sarah Dessen, Deb Caletti, and Francesca Lia Block. Just as much a celebration of love as it is a portrait of loss, Lennie's struggle to sort her own melody out of the noise around her is always honest, often hilarious, and ultimately unforgettable.

If there is a right and a wrong way to grieve, then Lennie Walker is making a spectacular mess of things.

Ever since her older sister died, Lennie has felt adrift and abandoned. Bailey was Juliet and whirling dervish. Bailey was beauty and effortless cool … Bailey was the racehorse, and Lennie her companion pony.

In the wake of her sister’s sudden death, Lennie has turned to comfort from Bailey’s equally distraught boyfriend, Toby. Beautiful Toby, who is part skate punk, part cowboy. As grief threatens to implode within them, Toby and Lennie embark on a confusing and heated tryst that won’t make any sense to either of them, while also feeling completely right.

Since Bailey’s death, Lennie has pulled away from her beloved Gram and uncle Big. She has been ignoring her best friend, Sarah, and become fascinated with the idea of the mother who abandoned Bailey and Lennie when they were children.

But more than that, Lennie has become completely and embarrassingly obsessed with Joe Fontaine. He’s the new boy in school, from France, and he’s in band with Lennie. Joe is enigmatic and cool, with to-die-for batting lashes. Lennie could see herself playing Cathy to Joe’s Heathcliff.

But grief and tragedy have a funny way of throwing life off course.

‘The Sky is Everywhere’ was the debut 2010 YA novel from Jandy Nelson.

For a little while there, the young adult genre followed a distinct trend. We were inundated with heavy books solemnly and beautifully exploring the subject of death and loss. ‘The Piper’s Son’ by Melina Marchetta. ‘If I Stay’ by Gayle Forman. ‘Saving June’ by Hannah Harrington… the list goes on and on. It seems that the new topic du-jour in YA is melancholy tragedy. I’m sure New York Times op-ed opinionated so-and-so’s would point to such books as examples of the dark and depressing subject matter clouding young reader’s minds today. But what those people fail to realize is that, sad they may be, books like ‘The Sky is Everywhere’ use death and despair to highlight the beauty of life. Without suffering, there would be no compassion.

Nelson’s book is gorgeous. It’s dripping in flavourful lyricism and pinpoint descriptions. I especially loved the chapter interludes, which include random snatches of writing and poetry that Lennie has been scribbling on candy wrappers and inside closets, leaving a trail of written grief in her wake.

The book is a beautiful balance of quirky and tragedy. Bailey Walker died, suddenly, while rehearsing for her part as Juliet in the famous Shakespeare play. What she leaves behind is a grief-stricken boyfriend and a house divided by sorrow as Lennie, Big and Gram try to grasp their loss. The quirky comes from the lovable and original Walker family. Uncle Big, the arborist and town Lothario, who has ‘picnics’ in trees with women and smokes pot to numb the pain of losing his niece. Gram paints green women, and has told her granddaughters all their lives that their wanderlust mother is coming home, eventually. Lennie affectionately calls her family mad, and she’s not half wrong. But Nelson also beautifully illustrates that this unconventional family is filled to the brim with love, even if all the players seem cast adrift from one another in the wake of this tragedy;

What kind of world is this? And what do you do about it? What do you do when the worst thing that can happen actually happens? When you get that phone call? When you miss your sister’s rollercoaster of a voice so much that you want to take apart the whole house with your fingernails?

The real heart of the story comes from Lennie’s complicated new feelings of lust for two boys – Bailey’s ex, Toby, and new boy in school Joe. Grief seems to have made a succubus of Lennie, and she finds herself boiling and lusting like it’s nobody’s business. Through her spontaneous and inappropriate liaisons with both boys, we read the indelicacies of grief. It throws us for a loop, as Lennie discovers. Grief makes us do things we wouldn’t normally do, cling to people we know are not meant for us … I loved that Nelson offered so many grey areas in Lennie’s matters of the heart. I appreciated the fact that through her whirling romantic notions, Nelson illustrated that grief has no right or wrong answers, there’s just grief.

I whisper, “I’m left beind.”
“Me too…” His voice catches. He doesn’t say anything else, doesn’t look at me; he just takes my hand and holds it and doesn’t let it go as the cover above us gets thicker and we push together farther into the deepening dark.


Another thing I loved about Nelson’s book – no flashbacks. So often when dealing with an important absent character, writers will fall back on the old flashback schtick. Sometimes this works beautifully (‘If I Stay’ being a prime example) but often it’s just lazy. In ‘The Sky is Everywhere’, Bailey permeates the story without ever making a physical appearance. We do not meet her in flashbacks or solid memories. Instead, we garner bits of her from Lennie’s writing, their room the ‘orange sanctum’ and the way Toby looks for pieces of her in Lennie. Nelson presents Bailey to readers beautifully and unobtrusively, and we feel her loss all the more because of it.

I now know why ‘The Sky is Everywhere’ was appearing on so many people’s ‘favorites’ lists last year. It is a truly epic debut novel, clashing depths of grief with soaring life through the eyes of a quirky and bereaved family. Brilliant.

5/5

2 comments:

  1. And I loved the way Lennie went around kissing the furniture.

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  2. I loved this book. So much that after I returned the library's copy I went out and bought it for myself and a friend. Nelson gently nuances the quirky family, which could so easily have gone over the top. She also portrays the forbidden love in such a tender, generous way that explores Lennie's confusion, desire and grief.

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