Sometimes, you have to admit that you just didn’t like a book and just didn’t quite understand the hype surrounding it. Jandy Nelson’s The Sky is Everywhere — her debut novel that will hit shelves in March — fell flat for me and forced me to do a lot of thinking about whether or not the publisher is missing the target audience on this one. Dial is pouring a ton of money into developing a huge buzz over this one through blogs, early and wide ARC distribution, a print and radio campaign, and banner displays galore.
The Sky is Everywhere tells Lennie’s story: Lennie’s sister Bailey died suddenly. She and Bailey were very close, in part due to the fact their mother disappeared from their lives at a young age, and they were sent to live with their grandmother and uncle.
Sharing in Lennie’s family loss is Toby, Bailey’s former boyfriend. As the story progresses, we come to learn that Toby and Bailey were not only engaged, but they were expecting a baby. At the same time, Joe steps into Lennie’s life; he’s a cute boy that Lennie’s best friend thinks that Lennie definitely needs to go for. But as Lennie and Toby spend more time together, their relationship seems to evolve from companions in grief to something more romantic.
The crux of the story is when Lennie makes mistakes between the boys in choosing which one she wants to be with while she simultaneously makes sense of her position in loss. It is slow and deliberate. Part of the story unwinds in poetry lines Lennie has written and placed in different places.
Nelson’s prose is poetic — every word is carefully chosen, and each line is constructed with great intention. For me, this book is absolutely about the writing and not at all about the story. Quite frankly, the story is way too slow and never coalesces. The entire reading experience left me wondering when something would actually happen, but unfortunately, nothing does. Although the language use in this story is incredible, that in itself further shields the story. Instead of writing the story, the story was written around. I never once felt myself caring about Bailey (she dies when the story opens, and I never learned anything about her) and I found everyone around Lennie was flat. At times, they were simply stereotypes — the girl who loves all things philosophy and the insistence on making the characters allusions to other literary works really grated on me. Lennie herself left me wanting more, too, as she seemed to be everyone else and not herself; that is, we know she likes two boys, that she misses her sister, that her best friend is Sarah, but we know almost nothing about her.
The Sky is Everywhere has been drawing comparisons to Sarah Dessen or Elizabeth Scott, but I must disagree wholeheartedly. Dessen and Scott are character-driven writers: we know so much about the main characters and secondary characters. They both have strong writing skills, but they are less on the literary side. We know their stories intimately and feel we are there. Nelson left me knowing some good writing and sparks of a story, but I never felt like I got close enough to the story or the characters. I felt very distanced. The romance between Lennie and the boys is much weaker and less developed than in either a Dessen or Scott title. I think handing this book off to a fan of Sarah Dessen or Elizabeth Scott might not be the best bet.
In the course of reading, though, I felt like fans of Justine Chen Headley’s North of Beautiful would really enjoy this book. The slow pacing, the slow unraveling of story, and the literary styles are similar, and I believe that the relationships that the main character in each develops with the boys in her respective story are similar. The difficult family situations will also resonate.
My biggest disappointment in reading this book was the target audience. I don’t believe this is a book meant for teens. I believe this is an adult book — the story feels much more mature than teen books, and the use of allusions to deep philosophical ideas and to “great literature” were far above the appreciation level of most teens. The language, while beautiful and can be appreciated at that level, left even me needing to look up words. The teen slang was stilted and wince-inducing at times. The story is very mature, and not in the appropriateness sense of the word. It’s a mature story about understanding who you are and what makes you survive. These concepts can be broken down for teens, but this was not an attempt at that. And of course, if you have a background in literature or writing, you know that books like this are also often a treatise on writing itself. I’d suspect Nelson’s education and training in the art of writing made this a total work of love to language.
Marketing decisions aren’t always in the hands of the author, and part of me wonders if that’s the case with The Sky is Everywhere. I can’t hazard any guesses, of course, but the book struck me as one that’s being published in a market where it won’t do as strongly as it could in another one. That’s not to say this isn’t a book worth reading because it should be, if for the writing and appreciation of language alone, but this is a book that young adults and adults will enjoy far more than a typical teenager.