February 16, 2011

Review: The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson

 The Sky Is Everywhere

There were once two sisters
who were not afraid of the dark
because the dark was full of the other's voice
across the room,
because even when the night was thick
and starless
they walked home together from the river
seeing who could last the longest
without turning on her flashlight,
not afraid
because sometimes in the pitch of night
they'd lie on their backs
in the middle of the path
and look up until the stars came back
and when they did,
they'd reach their arms up to touch them
and did.      

If I told you that this was a story about a girl who’s sister died and the whole book is about how she figures out how to mourn her loss, you probably wouldn’t want to read it. But if I told you that you would swoon with unbelievable hope and love for her and her healing heart you probably would be interested. So let me tell you, it’s both of these. In Jandy Nelson’s first book, The Sky is Everywhere, we meet seventeen-year old Lennie Walker who’s entire world comes to a screeching blinding halt when her 19 year old sister, Bailey, dies suddenly and leaves her an only child. Complicate that loss with her mother walking out on Lennie and Bailey when they were just toddlers and then raised by their grandmother and their Uncle Big and you’ve got a therapist’s wet dream

So Lennie develops these odd coping mechanisms. One of which is to write sad poetry and then tuck the scraps of words in odd places around town. Each chapter is a delight to start off with a poem that she either “scrawled on a paper coffee cup” or “buried in Gram’s garden.” Mostly, the poems are sad and about missing Bailey or sometimes what Bailey is missing. Complications a typical 17-year old would go through are compounded by her inability to grieve properly for her devastating loss and her confusing feelings about boys. Two boys in particular. One boy is her dead sister’s boyfriend, Toby. 


Lennie and Toby pour their grief into each other and find solace in that shared misery. They are lost at sea in their sadness and it seems that the the only safe harbour is in each others arms. This, of course, brings on Lennie’s horrible sense of guilt and feelings of betrayal to her sister. And as soon as you start yelling at your book (What? Please, you know you all do it sometimes, too.) for her to stay away from Toby and to get over herself and start tearing her hair out and screaming for redemption...in strolls Joe. Joe Fontaine whose name sounds like it belongs to a movie star or a professional athlete and who you expect to glide around everywhere he goes with a guitar strapped to his back and his tousled hair and his 1,000 watt smile. As a recent transplant from Paris (Paris!) he becomes one of, if not the only, slice of brightness in Lennie’s life. 

Lennie and Toby’s relationship is punctuated by sadness and grief whereas Lennie’s relationship with Joe has a foundation based on the common love of music (she plays clarinet at virtuoso levels and he plays every instrument you can think of, but he’s most comfortable with his guitar) and family. It’s funny how obvious the choice should be here, but that’s the thing about one’s heart or in this case, in one’s heartbreak, your head and your heart just sometimes don’t communicate. 

There were parts of this book that had me screaming at the characters because of what I perceived as sheer stupidity. There were other parts that made me want to float around on my back in a mirrored reflecting pond on a summer day with nothing but the sound of the birds singing tender melodies to me. Then there were the parts that had me cringing and crying for the heartbreak and the pain the characters go through. Overall though, I felt like I had been through all 12 steps of grief before getting to the end. It was an emotionally exhausting ride. But as with most difficult travels, the oasis at the end is well worth it. Though primarily wrought with sadness and grief, the undercurrent is that of hope. You hope for all things in this story. You even start to hope for impossibilities and as the truth gets revealed slowly as if peeling an onion, you start to hope that even Big’s mystical model pyramids can bring life back from death. 

Simply put: this was an extraordinary read. Filled with witty Lennie’s incredibly hilarious inner monologue and descriptions of her grief tearing at her being piece by painful piece, it is a true portrait of how we mourn loss. Through it all, the one person who fills in the gaps is Lennie’s grandmother, a stalwart warrior of a woman who spent her entire life punishing herself with a secret that, once revealed to Lennie, blows open the doors to the house of their grief and so begins the healing of their souls. 

One of the reasons I tend to gravitate more to Young Adult novels (because at 37, a wife and a mommy to a toddler, I am anything BUT a young adult...shoot, the jury is still out on whether I can even call myself an “adult” but I digress...) is the blunt honesty that most of these books take with tough topics. I read Joan Didion’s popular memoir on mourning the death of her husband, The Year of Magical Thinking, many years ago and it still continues to have a very profound effect on me. In comparing the stages of grief from both books (and I mean no disrespect to Ms. Didion as she wrote a personal memoir versus Jandy Nelson’s work of fiction in this novel but I can’t help but compare) I can definitely say that Lennie’s grief is more in-your-face and her pain floats more easily on her countenance than the descriptions of grief that are almost poetic in its serene acceptance in nature but still hard hitting from Ms. Didion. Lennie may dance around her issues but her grief is evident in every facet in her interactions with people. The only true joy you get from her is when she is with Joe. She even states very bluntly while she’s with Joe:

“I try to cover my face with my hands, but he won’t let me. And then we are wrestling and laughing and it’s many many minutes before I remember that my sister has died.”

One last thing about this book, there are some really amazing things that happen in this story, but nothing as dreamy as seeing the bed in the forest. For real.  

The Sky is Everywhere is Jandy Nelson’s very first book (applause!). Her next novel is called The History of Luck due out on October 1, 2011.  



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