Tess and Lizzie are sisters, sisters as close as can be, who share a secret world filled with selkies, flying horses, and a girl who can transform into a wolf in the middle of the night. But when Lizzie is ready to grow up, Tess clings to their fantasies. As Tess sinks deeper and deeper into her delusions, she decides that she can’t live in the real world any longer and leaves Lizzie and her family forever. Now, years later, Lizzie is in high school and struggling to understand what happened to her sister. With the help of a school psychologist and Tess’s battered journal, Lizzie searches for a way to finally let Tess go.
Without Tess was a blend of many things: a daring description of mental illness, a beautiful portrayal of the bonds of sisterhood, a book that made me smile and cry. It was one of those novels that I simply couldn't put down and reading page after page after page I found myself drowning in the emotions of the main character--possibly because I understand the sisters' relationship, possibly simply because this book is written in compelling prose.
Lizzie, our main character, has been trying to cope with her sister's untimely death for five years when the story opens. Told in mix of flashbacks, poetry, and counseling sessions, the story of Tess and Lizzie's intense relationship comes to life before your eyes. Despite the fact that Tess is already dead when the book starts, we get to know her through Lizzie's recollections. It's clear from the beginning that Tess' playful imaginings are more than just make believe to her. Lizzie goes along with everything her sister says from the beginning because she loves her sister more than anything in the world. But when Tess' world of make believe becomes all too real for Lizzie, she has to make the choice to separate herself from her sister's world and that decision haunts her for a long time--well after her sister's death.
Lizzie is a character that really broke my heart. It was tough to watch her hide herself away from the world because as the outside observer you could tell that she really just needed to talk about what happened--and not to a shrink or her parents. There is such an intense difference between the girl of the flashbacks and present-day Lizzie.
Tess, despite being dead from the beginning, is a character that you both grow to love and hate through Lizzie's flashbacks. She's rather intense, to say the least, and you watch her wrap Lizzie into her delusions throughout the novel. Tess was a character who made me feel both empathy and anger for her all at the same time. You are literally watching her waste away because of her delusional beliefs, which is heart-breaking, but at the same time, you watch her inflict intense emotional and sometimes physical pain on those around her, especially Lizzie.
Niccolo was an interesting minor character. I liked how he pursued Lizzie because he didn't push TOO hard, but he made sure that she knew he was there for her. I wanted her to lean on him and finally let SOMEONE in. However, Lizzie and Niccolo's relationship could have made a lot more sense. I understood their little make-out session, but I could have used a little more build-up. Like, maybe that first time could have just been one kiss spurred on my the crying/laughing?
The end wraps up possibly a little too quickly, but in a way that makes sense. Lizzie isn't really "letting go" of Tess, but you finally feel like she has some semblance of inner peace and there's hope for her parents as well. Overall, I thought this was a well-done story of one sister's mental illness and the other's path to forgiveness and letting go. I would recommend it to YA readers who enjoy issue-centered YA reads.