The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson
Walker Books, 386 pages
Seventeen-year-old Lennie Walker, bookworm and band geek, plays second clarinet and spends her time tucked safely and happily in the shadow of her fiery sister Bailey. But when Bailey dies suddenly, Lennie is catapulted to center stage of her own life — and, despite her nonexistent history with boys, finds herself struggling to balance two. Toby was Bailey’s boyfriend; his grief mirrors Lennie’s own. Joe is the new boy in town, a transplant from Paris whose nearly magical grin is matched only by his musical talent. For Lennie, they’re the sun and the moon; one boy takes her out of her sorrow, the other comforts her in it. But just like their celestial counterparts, they can’t collide without the whole wide world exploding.
I think the thing about reading books about death and grief is it’s hard to relate to it if you haven’t experienced the kind of grief the characters are experiencing. I’ve read a couple of books that dealt with those topics and while I really loved them and the characters resonated with me, I don’t think I fully related to the characters and their plight because I am still blessed enough not to experience the kind of death that these characters had. This holds me at arm’s length at them, making me more of an audience than a player in the story.
But that does not stop me from reading books like that, and that includes The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson. No one is a stranger to death, and we would all have to deal with grief sooner or later. Lennie was one of those people who had to deal with grief sooner, when death took her 19-year-old sister, Bailey, away through a freak heart disease. This death makes Lennie’s world come undone. She drifts from day to day, shutting herself from her Grandmother and Uncle Big, thinking only about her loss and how Bailey would never have a future.
The Sky is Everywhere is one of those grief books that show us a different kind of grieving. The kind of grieving Lennie did was something people would frown upon, especially those who do not know the feeling. In the middle of Lennie’s grief for her sister, she falls in love. Strange, right? She finds herself wanting to be physically close to Toby, her sister’s boyfriend, and at the same time, she finds herself getting attracted to new guy Joe, who makes her heart feel like the flowers blooming in her grandmother’s yard. Guilt eats Lennie after every “happy” moment in love — how can she fall in love and be happy when her sister is dead? What kind of a person kisses her dead sister’s boyfriend?
There is a beauty in Jandy Nelson’s writing that makes this book almost ethereal. It was almost like the words in the pages were music, flowing seamlessly into the other without being too flowery. Lennie’s emotions run gamut around the book, and I liked that my copy is the UK edition so I was able to see her poems in full color where she “leaves” them:
Somehow, these things made the book more personal, and sometimes harder to read because it was like I was seeing something very private. But it’s not like the other parts of the book aren’t too personal either, and it strikes a chord in me, even if I cannot relate 100%. For example:
How will I survive this missing? How do others do it? People die all the time. Every day. Every hour. There are families all over the world staring at beds that are no longer slept in, shoes that are no longer worn. Families that no longer have to buy a particular cereal, a kind of shampoo. There are people everywhere standing in line at the movies, buying curtains, walking dogs, while inside their hearts are ripping to shreds. For years. For their whole lives. I don’t believe time heals. I don’t want it to. If I heal, doesn’t that mean I’ve accepted the world without her? (p. 222-223)
There were a few times in the book that I felt the familiar choking sensation of tears wanting to come, and another part of me is thankful that I am still spared from that kind of pain. Perhaps in reading this book, I will be somehow ready?
But if there was a lesson that The Sky is Everywhere imparts, it’s that there is no wrong way of grieving. Everyone grieves their own way, and it’s our hearts’ ways of healing itself and moving on. This very idea/lesson gave me a hard time in rating the book, because this meant the meat of the story is just Lennie’s way of grieving…but honestly, the romantic aspect just didn’t sit well with me. While I thought Joe and Toby were pretty well-rounded characters and interesting guys for Lennie to fall for, I wasn’t very sold in the love triangle. It was obvious who Lennie would choose is the end anyway. Plus, the entire Joe thing felt just a bit unbelievable for me, almost exaggerated in romanticism. I’m pretty sure I’m just nitpicking with that. Call me old fashioned, but I want my romance a little bit built up with a solid foundation and not just filled with music (figuratively and literally with instruments such as upright bass and the like) and flowers and kissing and all that. I can’t help but compare this book with one of my favorites, The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen with their thematic similarities, and how romance played a part in how the main characters grieved. If I were to choose which romance I’d prefer between Lennie-Joe and Macy-Wes, I am definitely for the latter. The Lennie-Joe build up just does not sit well with me. I guess I really am old-fashioned that way.
Nevertheless, The Sky is Everywhere is still a beautiful novel, in story and in writing. Romance aside, I thought it was a great debut for Jandy Nelson, and I am looking forward to reading more of her works.
My copy: UK edition from Fully Booked
Cover image & Blurb: Goodreads