Saturday, October 20, 2012

Without Tess, by Marcella Pixley

For the past five years, Lizzie has been struggling with coming to terms with the death of her older sister.  As children, the two girls were tightly bonded and shared an intense love of fantasy and make-believe, with Tess always leading the way.  As they grow older and Lizzie begins to outgrow both the make-believe and her intense devotion for her sister, Tess retreats more and more into fantasy, eventually leading to tragedy.

Told in a combination of flashbacks, Tess's poetry, and counseling sessions, this is a gritty and bare-open portrayal of mental illness and the impact it can have on a young family.  I liked Pixley's previous novel Freak a lot, but this book is on an entirely different playing field.  The anecdotes are so raw and so confessional, that it's impossible to remain impassive.  Knowing the tragic ending that awaits in no way prepares you for it.  Pixley does let us off a bit with a positive ending, but you will be in tears by the end of the book.

There's so much to love here.  The writing is superb and recalls the wistfulness of early Sarah Dessen.  The imagery ranges from the naturalistic (the seaside setting is employed to great effect) to the spiritual (Lizzie's flirtation with Catholicism is wonderfully juxtaposed with the "betrayal" of her sister).  The characters are amazing (whether it is the lyric Tess herself, her scared sister Lizzie, the well-meaning neighbors, or the confused parents) and every portrayal is spot on.  These people seemed real to me and my heart went out to each of them.  Without a doubt, one of the truly great books I've read all year, although it will undoubtedly break your heart!

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