“The Sky is Everywhere” by Jandy Nelson

03 Nov


"The Sky is Everywhere" is Lennie's story of overcoming the tragic, sudden death of her older sister, college student / actress Bailey. Part sweeping love story, part grief journal, this book is peppered with Lennie's poetry, as written on everything from the soles of her shoes to discarded coffee cups. Author Jandy Nelson writes in a lyrical, poetic style, and her word choice can be captivating, as she almost paints the story as much as writes it. Whether this style works for you — admittedly, it gave me some problems — will largely determine how you feel about this novel.

We meet Lennie at the start of a California summer, months after her sister's death. Lennie is still heartbroken, often spending time in Bailey's closet, engulfing her fading scent. Lennie's Gram and Uncle Big try to reach out to Lennie in their own eccentric ways, but she's basically sleepwalking. The only thing that makes Lennie feel alive is kissing Bailey's boyfriend, Toby. Yes, it's wrong and shameful, and it makes her feel utterly disgusting, but making out with the devastated Toby — who is as lost as Lennie — is an addictive rush.

Just as school is ending, Lennie meets Joe, a fellow musician with batting eyelashes, a poetic soul, and foreign cachet (Joe lived in Paris, plays the acoustic guitar, and drinks wine; rock on!). Joe ends up joining Lennie for daily breakfasts and, er, family chats — among other things, Uncle Big is trying to raise the dead with mini pyramids (!) — and the whole clan quickly becomes enamored of him. For Lennie, this is first love in all its blooming, incandescent glory … except for the part where she's still self destructing by fooling around with Toby and, yeah, the part where her own happiness feels like a betrayal of Bailey.

How all this resolves, including a subplot about Lennie’s long-missing mother, I will leave to your reading. I despise spoilers! I will instead say that the sensual quality of Nelson’s writing works splendidly in depicting Lennie’s burgeoning love for Joe, as well as in lush descriptions of velvety roses, flowing rivers, crisp breezes, and green woods. There were, however, times when I felt whole passages were overwritten — must every paragraph include three metaphors?! — and that the story would have benefited from being giving more room to breathe and just be.

Along these same lines, Joe is so perfect, such a paragon of beauty, charm, grace … heck, even musical talent and worldliness! … that I found him completely unbelievable as a real teen boy. Similarly, Gram and Uncle Big had one quirk too many for my tastes (Gram only paints with green hues; Uncle Big, married five times, takes all his lady conquests up into a tree for romance). The last straw in this regard was an actual bedroom lovingly maintained deep in the forest by some sort of hippie pied piper. Ugh. Seriously? A secret forest bedroom?

If that criticism seems harsh, I truly don’t mean it to be so. I just found these grandiose flourishes — the overwrought language, the characters’ eccentricities — to undermine the quiet grief and loneliness that is so carefully portrayed here. The "bigger," sweeping touches work more effectively in conveying the romance than they do the pain.

Fans of verse novels and transporting romances ("Wuthering Heights," referenced throughout the novel, is a great example) will find much to like here. Even music lovers will likely adore Lennie’s descriptions of floating along while playing the clarinet. Those of us looking for a bit more realism and grit may find portions of "The Sky is Everywhere" grating rather than uplifting. But, hey, we're all different. In the end, this book is a (mostly) lovely read with some truly stirring moments and fine poetry sprinkled throughout. Happy reading!

PS: The paperback version of "The Sky is Everywhere," with the completely reworked forest bedroom cover, should be out in March of 2011.

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Posted by on November 3, 2010 in Uncategorized


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