At conferences, I always like to ask the publicists what their favorite book of the upcoming season is. I always feel like I get a peak at something I may not have otherwise gotten just wandering the floor. This year at ALA, Without Tess by Marcella Pixley was the title recommended highly at the Macmillan booth and touted as an in-house favorite.
The story opens with Liz talking about feeling guilt for the death of her sister Tess. We’re in the present but we’re taken to the past near immediately, to a time when both girls were younger. The girls, who were three years apart in age, were close. Liz idolized her bigger sister, who was a believer in all things magic. She believed in werewolves and selkies and magic passionately — all her games revolved around these ideas. It was these beliefs that ultimately caused Tess’s death, and it’s Liz who feels responsible for it.
While Without Tess sounds like a fairly cut-and-dry story of grief and loss, it’s a lot more complex as it delves into a few big issues that a number of other books looking at these issues don’t. There’s an interesting play of religion here, as Liz and Tess are Jewish. They practice, and their beliefs are challenged repeatedly by their neighbors and friends Niccolo and Isabelle. They are practicing Catholics, and Pixley smartly juxtaposes the ideas of formal religion with the fantastical beliefs held by Tess.
It’s those fantastical beliefs that offers readers another layer to the story, and that’s mental wellness. The second half of the book opens the doors to this storyline, as Liz expounds upon her sister’s diminishing stability. Her sister talked of turning into a water princess with earnestness, and she goes as far as to attack Liz when she believes she has werewolf abilities. Although it sounds somewhat funny, in the context of the story it’s quite scary. As readers, we’re on to the fact something isn’t quite right with Liz, but we aren’t able to put our finger on it exactly. I’ve read a number of books broaching the issue of mental health this year, but I didn’t quite find the storyline here compelling enough to be believable, especially since Liz focuses so little on it. She’s too self-absorbed, honestly, and eager to make sure she’s the center of attention when it comes to the downfall of her sister. But it’s worth noting — Pixley offers an interesting question to readers about whether Tess’s beliefs are child’s play, since she’s only 12, or whether they really are signs of deeper mental issues.
I didn’t care for Liz as a narrator in this story, and I don’t know if I bought the greater premise of the story because of her. She’s depressed, even years later, by the loss of her sister, and over the course of time she has to heal from this wound, she’s made it become a part of who she is. She wears dark clothes and acts as though she carries the weight of the world on her; she makes herself out to be a stereotype, and while I could picture this to be true, I thought it worked more as a way to make herself feel self-important. Liz is obsessed with the idea of her sister and more so with the idea that she was responsible for her sister’s death. She strings together these flashbacks during counseling sessions, and in doing so, there is a lot of build up to finding out what exactly happened to Tess (there’s no surprise Tess is dead, since that’s known upfront). The problem is that these build ups ultimately lead to a disappointing conclusion, furthering the fact that Liz is more interested in telling a story about herself than about her sister. For me, this didn’t settle well, as I hoped for something greater and something that would give me a reason to sympathize more with Liz. I couldn’t even say I’d necessarily sympathized with Tess, except for the fact no one helped her when she needed it — though perhaps they did. Again, getting the story from Liz’s perspective means only getting part of the story.
One of the other elements of this story worth mentioning is the poetry. One of the things Tess left behind in her death was her Pegasus Journal. It was where she drew her fantastical pictures and wrote poems that talked about other worlds and this world, to good readers. Liz actually stole it from her sister’s coffin at her funeral (need I mention her selfishness again?) and used it for class assignments. It’s this little plot point that brings the book full circle, though I’m not sure how necessary it is. It feels like a thin string to hold the story together, given the time passage between Tess’s death and the revelations Liz makes in therapy. But more than that, I found the poetry didn’t quite work well to further the story. Many of the poems preceded chapters that explained them further, and I felt like the chapters would have been enough. Although it was meant to give Tess a voice in the story, I felt it did more to take away from her voice. This is a technique that was used more effectively in Jandy Nelson’s The Sky is Everywhere, which was also a story of sister grief.
Although I found a lot of this book to be kind of a let down, one of the things that made me keep reading with interest was how interesting a mirror this book was for one of my favorite books this year, Nova Ren Suma’s Imaginary Girls. This book features an interesting sister relationship, much of it based in the supernatural, and I thought that what Liz and Tess went through was quite reminiscent of Chloe and Ruby’s story. Where Ruby had a magical vibe to her throughout Suma’s book, build through the observations and idolization of Chloe, Tess earns her magical vibe through Liz’s determination to react against the diagnosis of instability others gave Tess. The parallels didn’t end there, either: water plays a huge role in this book, much as it does in Suma’s. I think these two books could be read as a conversation with one another, and despite the fact they don’t have a relationship to one another, reading Pixley’s book gave more insight into what may have been going on in Suma’s, and vice versa.
Without Tess was worth the time, but I think in the end, this book might be forgettable. It’s not that it’s bad — it’s not — but there are other books that feature a lot of these elements and do it just a little more strongly. The writing itself is fine, but it’s not sparkling; it felt like the poetry was meant to aid in giving it a stronger literary quality, though I didn’t buy the poetry nor think it was that strong (and thinking about it now, it seemed like pretty mature poetry for a 12-year-old to write). That said, I think this book could work for a younger teen readership, as it’s fairly clean, and it is less creepy and eerie than Suma’s book. It also offers more answers than questions, which is something many readers prefer in a story. I’d classify this as a contemporary read, and it’s one that those who like to think about issues of mental health, belief, grief and loss, or even family relationships.
Book received from the publisher. Without Tess will be published October 11.