Without Tess Hardcover – Oct 11 2011
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About the Author
Marcella Pixley is a middle school language arts teacher and a writer. Her poetry has been published in various literary journals, and she has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her first book, Freak, received four starred reviews and was named a Kirkus Best Book of the Year. She lives in Westford, Massachusetts, with her husband and two sons.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
This is a well written book that touches on something that's rarely seen in YA books, and that's mental illness. The story itself centers on the young Lizzie, the forgotten sister who's constantly caught between her mentally ill sister and her parents who for the majority of the story are in denial over Tess's problem. Tess and Lizzie seem to have that fantastic childhood that's full of make believe and magic. Their world is one that takes them to different places and allows me them to be anything they want to be. It's full of possibilities, happiness and magic. Little by little the world that centers around the two sisters becomes darker and darker as Tess starts to blur the lines of make believe and reality.
Lizzie herself is one of these girls I wanted to reach out to. Now a teenager she's in therapy, turning to cope with what happened during her childhood. This poor girl is so strong and yet so broken. Her emotions and feelings of what happened through out the book were completely justified and understandable at times, and other times it was hard to connect with her. As a child there were times she knew something wasn't quite right, but she couldn't quite grasp what that was. Tess, the older sister was someone I despised from the get go. The things she does to her sister were not only harmful and selfish, but they permanently scared her sister. She had absolutely no regard to Lizzie's safety or anyone else's and didn't mind inflicting pain upon her. On the same token, it was a little heart breaking seeing how quickly she goes down hill.
Marcella really does a great job at taking readers into this delusional, darker world of her mental ill character. If she had gotten the help earlier on, I think there would have been a dramatically different out come for everyone, including Tess and Lizzie. I spent most of the book completely frustrated and irritated at Lizzie's parents who when it's apparent something is really wrong with their daughter are in such denial, that they inadvertently put both girls in harm, because they do not get Tess the help she desperately need. It's not until something happens to Lizzie do they finally get Tess the help she needs, but sadly it's far too late for it. I wasn't at all prepared for what takes place during this story when I sat down to read it, but it was something I couldn't stop reading.
While I found the story to be rich, and well developed, there were a few times I found the dialogue between Tess and Lizzie who are 10 and 11 at the time to be a little bit too mature for their age. There's also the topic of religion that is mentioned a few times in the story that I felt was a little out of place for what was going on. One of the things I really wanted to see develop more of was the sweet romance between Lizzie and one of the characters. I understand it was not a big part of the story until the very end, but it's one I wish hadn't sat on the back burner until then. The scene that takes place is heartbreakingly beautiful for both characters. Regardless, Without Tess is a truly powerful read that dives right into the dark world of mental illness and the effects it has not only on the person who has it, but those around them. This is a story I'd recommend to older YA readers.
Reviewed by Jessica for Book Sake.
Start with the Cons. The main would be that the poetry verses that Tess ( the narrator's mentally ill sister) writes that pop up every few chapters, are a bit unrealistic, regardless of the fact that Tess was obviously pretty dramatic and an excellent writer. I was wowed by the poetry and I respect this author highly. There's just no way an eleven year old could have written stuff like that. I didn't really mind that much, just because I was so sucked into the pure amazing writing that it all was. Another not so minor flaw to point out was the family's reaction to Tess's mental illness.
Right from the beginning it was pretty clear that there was something very wrong with this little girl. So why did the family wait so long to take action? I understand that she wasn't exactly burning the house down or threatening to kill them all or anything, but her mother remarked several times about the disturbing nature of the images she drew. ( A girl with her mouth violently stapled shut, and the mother doesn't blink?) Then there was a part when the girls went to the beach and completely stripped and lay naked in the waves, trying to turn into seals. And no one noticed?! Then, Lizzie (the narrator) walks back to her parents with a giant gash on her cheek. Again, neither bats an eyelash. The parents in general weren't mentioned nearly enough.
That aside, in every other sense this book came close to perfection. I could put my rationale aside and just enjoy it, which I would recommend for you to do. If you are someone who gets annoyed by the aformentioned, maybe wait on this one.
The Pros of this book would have to include that fantastic poetry. Some of those poems were utterly disturbing as Tess went deeper into psychosis and I couldn't tear my eyes away. The character of Lizzie is well drawn out enough so that she doesn't take up most of the story, just sort of sits in a counselor's office for ninety percent of it, refelcting on the various creepy poems and drawings of her sister. The ending is a bit abrupt, but I thought it was good enough. We can pretty much assume how Tess is going to die from the beginning, but her death scene still comes across as pretty haunting. Tess is without a doubt the main character, even though she isn't narrating. But that's okay, because she's an incredible one.
This was an excellent read. Not for the faint of heart, but really well done.
Our narrator is Lizzie, a young girl faltering in high school, still mourning the loss of her older sister, the titular Tess. She has no friends, no ambitions, and clutches Tess' journal as her safety. Through the listening help of Dr. Kaplan, Lizzie begins to realize the mental state of Tess and release herself from crippling feelings of guilt over her complicity in her sister's death.
I felt so much pain reading about Tess, her imaginative fancies, and the way she brought Lizzie in to them. I understand that Tess had mental problems and that their parents were completely ineffectual in getting her the support she needed. But as an outsider, I just wanted to reach in and protect Lizzie. She constantly put herself at risk and alienated others in order to stay in the good graces of her temperamental sister. As it says on the book jacket, "...she did everything her sister asked her to do, even if it meant putting herself in danger." It's absolutely heartbreaking and one of the saddest sister stories I've read. There are the fun times that bind them as sisters but they are far outweighed by Tess' mental illness.
One last element to mention is the writing, which is beautifully lush and did an excellent job capturing Tess' poetic side, the way she could throw out a phrase or sentence to entice Lizzie. However that is not the kind of writing that I really like and I sometimes felt overwhelmed by the writing. It was pretty and character-based where I tend to like a little bit more action. As might be expected, there are a lot of flashbacks in the book to trace the development of the relationship between the sisters; sometimes this can be confusing but in general, I thought it was very clear when events were happening.
Overall: Beautiful poetic writing and a storyline that just made me want to go hug my sister and tell her how much I love her.
Cover: A fitting sparseness for the way Lizzie's life feels.
The Good: What I loved about this book was the subtle way Pixley alerted the reader that things were not right in Tess Cohen's head. What started out as a cute and harmless game for children turned into a disturbing look at how mental illnesses ravage families and their victim. I really felt bad for Lizzie. Her "secret" is one that I think many people would carry with them if they were in the same situation as Lizzie and that made me feel sad for her. The closeness between the sisters makes the story that much more harrowing. Pixley created the world's most adorable mentally unstable characters I've met. Tess is so undeniably vivid and full of life but she is disturbingly sick. It's so evident and you want to pull your hair out because you know just how sick she is and you want her to get better. I felt like I WAS Lizzie for a while. The poetry weaved into the chapters was such a brilliant way to show us more of Tess's character. It foreshadowed enough without giving anything away and was perfect lyrical poetry. For once, I loved an ending that had a certain amount of closure and certainty. I'm usually a fan of ambiguous endings, but in this novel, I actually loved the ending.
The Bad: Even though I really enjoyed this novel, it was one of those that I know in a week, month or year I will have forgotten it. There wasn't enough "Umph" to make it amazing. It was simply an emotional, well written story. The one thing I really disliked was that I wanted to know more about Tess's mental illness. We never get to know what type it is, or how it affects her. We just know she has this mental illness. I would have liked to know exactly what type of odds she was against.
Overall, this was a really great look at childhood mental illness and a sad but beautiful story of a sister coming to terms with her sister's death. I would give this book a B-!
**I received this book free from the publisher through [...]. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.
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