The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson
Published: 2010, Dial
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary
Source: Library book
Goodreads · Amazon · Barnes & Noble
Without the harbor and mayhem of Toby's arms, the sublime distraction of Joe's, there's only me.
Me, like a small seashell with the loneliness of the whole ocean roaring invisibly within.
I throw my head into my pillow and scream into it as if my soul is being ripped in half, because it is.
The Sky is Everywhere is a book that just sort of crept up on me. While the book has enjoyed its fair share of critical acclaim and every friend of mine who read it seemed to love it, I was not entirely convinced that this book would elicit similar feelings in me. And it didn't, at least not at first. For the first half of the book, I read with a sense of bemusement, for it is a strange little book. And gradually I found that my feelings of polite curiosity had morphed into ones of awe and adoration. I am so pleased to find myself in agreement with so many others and can wholeheartedly attest to the beauty and genius of Jandy Nelson's debut.
The Lennie plant is ailing, and this time Lennie's grandmother isn't sure there is anything she can do to heal it. This matters because Gram believes that this one plant is reflective of her granddaughter Lennie's health. But Lennie isn't doing well, and neither is Gram or Lennie's uncle Big, because Lennie's sister Bailey died of a sudden heart arrhythmia while rehearsing her role as Juliet for a community college production. The three remaining members of the family are left to deal with the aftermath of Bailey's death and find ways to move forward with their lives. Gram and Big try to maintain a sense of normalcy and continue with their hobbies as much as possible, which for Gram is painting in shades of green and tending to her gardens and for Big is smoking weed, working on his mini resurrection pyramids, and dating. Lennie, however, cannot imagine how to even begin putting back together the broken pieces of her life. Coupled with Bailey's death is Lennie's guilt, fear, lackluster desire to play her clarinet, and a new found sexual awakening.
The Sky is Everywhere is essentially about how Lennie deals with her grief and attempts to move forward with her life. In itself, this is a fairly common theme. It is how Nelson chooses to address this struggle that makes the book so memorable. Nearly all of Lennie's actions can be traced back to Bailey's influence over her. As readers and Lennie come to realize, Lennie didn't just love Bailey, but allowed her personal desires for Bailey's life to affect her own life and decisions. Lennie's always considered herself to be the companion pony to her sister Bailey's thoroughbred. Lennie is a very talented clarinetist, perhaps talented enough to get into a conservatory such as Julliard, but the summer before Lennie purposely failed the audition for first clarinet in her school's band. She believes that it was Bailey's dream to attend Julliard and become a performer, and Bailey's failure to get accepted there has made Lennie back away from similar ambitions. For her, Bailey's been the beauty, the actress, the role model, the love interest. And nothing changes in that regard once Bailey is dead, except that now Lennie cannot hide her own thoughts, talents, and ambitions behind those of her sister anymore.
Except for whatever sort of relationship she seems to be forming with Toby, Lennie has cut herself off from the rest of the world. And then Joe enters the picture. Joe, whose good looks and incredible musical skills make him an object of desire for many girls, is somehow attracted to the post-Bailey Lennie. The Lennie who writes poems and snippets of thoughts about Bailey and then hides them outside. The Lennie who, along with Tony, tries to keep Bailey's memory alive with the help of the other person Bailey loved the most. The Lennie who refuses to touch anything on Bailey's side of their shared bedroom, preferring it to look as though Bailey has simply gone out for the day but will return shortly. The Lennie who just cannot make time to talk to her Gram or Uncle Big or best friend Sarah.
Many of Lennie's actions could be considered to be heartless, naive, and even stupid, most especially her increasingly sexual relationship with Toby. And yet, as Nelson so artfully shows, according to Lennie the world without Bailey is both incomplete and heartbreaking. I found it impossible not to sympathize with Lennie, and I'd imagine that anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one can say the same. Again and again Lennie finds her soul crushed by thinking of an experience she'd like to tell Bailey, a question she has for her, any sort of little reminder of her, only to realize that she'll never be able to confide in Bailey again. And so she seeks ways to find Bailey again, whether that be by being with Toby, the other person that Bailey really loved, calling Bailey's phone to hear her voicemail message, or searching Bailey's records for information on their long-absent mother.
Despite all of the gloom and grief that comes with Bailey's death, Nelson's book still retains quite a bit of love and hope, both in Lennie's gradual realization that she's not alone in mourning Bailey and that it's okay for her to have an identity outside of Bailey. Through beloved books and new relationships, both musical and romantic passions, and the ability to define her life through Bailey and also as an individual, Lennie experiences some serious character development. She doesn't have all the answers at the end (nor should she), yet readers retain some hope for a good future for her.
Despite my glowing praises of this book, I think it is important to mention how very, very strange it is. The quirkiness manifests itself best in Lennie's family. Her Gram paints portraits of women only using different variations of the color green and is known for her aphrodisiac roses. Her uncle Big has been married and divorced six times and is the talk among the women of their town. He also is obsessed with trying to bring dead bugs to life under replica Egyptian pyramids. Hers and Bailey's mother left when they were young and hasn't communicated with them since. All of Lennie's friends possess their own eccentricities, even Joe, who turns out to be the perfect ailment to Lennie's broken heart. Although they're a bit hard to swallow at first, it is through these multi-faceted and strange characters that Lennie's story really comes alive.
Reading The Sky is Everywhere is an experience that each reader should have. Heartbreakingly poignant, Nelson presents a haunting exploration of death and its aftermath, although one that is riddled with hope. For it is possible for sadness and happiness to coexist, just as grief and hope can. Nelson is clearly an incredibly talented writer and I eagerly await her future novels.
Rating: 5 stars