Without Tess Review

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Title: Without Tess
Author: Marcella Pixley
Publisher: FSG
Publish Date: October 11, 2011
Genre: YA, Contemporary
Pages: 224
Source: Publisher

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.
Tess and Lizzie lived a charmed childhood full of magic, wonder and impossible things becoming possible. It's a world of escapism that they share and love together but, eventually, they must grow up. Lizzie recognizes this. Tess, however, cannot live in a world without magic. Her world of magic becomes darker and more terrifying as it begins to consume her from the inside out and she loses her grip on reality. Now a teenager, Liz is learning to live without Tess, and must delve into her sister's innermost thoughts to understand and come to terms with the fact that the Tess she knew and loved is, and was, gone a very long time ago.

Without Tess, in a word, is daring. Not too many young adult authors will broach the topic of mental illness, and those who do tend to sugarcoat and dance around the dark nature of many of them. Marcella Pixley, however, is not one of those authors, and Without Tess is not one of those books. Rich and alluring, Without Tess invites you into a world where magic is real for two little girls, then shows how the inevitable reality embraces one girl into the fold and cuts another to the bone. Haunting and painful, the book tackles tedious subject matter with a steady gait and lyrical prose to make the reader both aware and understanding of the depth of mental illness.

I don't think I was fully prepared for Without Tess when I read it. I had an image of a previous book on mental illness in my mind, and I was expecting it to be a bit surface-heavy. Rather, Without Tess wastes no time in throwing you into the all-consuming darkness of Tess's delusions as they consume her from the inside out. We literally watch her wither away into oblivion, all the while causing possibly irreparable damage to her sister. Tess was a complex character. I despised her for the wrongs she did to Liz, and for the bone-crushing pain she inflicted on others. At the same time though, I pitied her and wanted mercy for her. Liz was also a multi-faceted character. I enjoyed reading about her in her younger self, while I felt her teenage self in the present was rather unlikable. The bitterness and anger that oozed from her character was understandable, of course, but it made me dread seeing things through her eyes because it was so bleak. Without Tess does more than show mental illness though. The author tackles the topic of religion and one's belief systems which, at times, felt true and fitting. At other times though, I felt like it overburdened the plot. I will say that Without Tess also featured dialogue for the younger version of Lizzie and Tess's poetry that felt a bit too mature and forced. Dark and mesmerizing, yes, but not true to their age.

Overall though, Without Tess was a powerful read portraying the depth of mental illness while giving us a rich and developed plot. I give it a 3.5 out of 5, and I'd recommend it to upper YA audiences and adults, especially those who like issue books and contemporary fiction.

I received this book free of charge in exchange for an honest review. This, in no way, affected my opinion or review of this book.


  1. Wow, this one sounds really interesting. I honestly hadn't thought about reading it until reading your review! Think I may check this one out from the library sometimes soon!

  2. I really loved the darkness of this one! You're right--most YA that tackles mental illness is usually surface-only. But Without Tess was crazy! I loved the writing style, too, though you may be right about the maturity level of the girls in the flashbacks/poems (I hadn't even thought of that!). Great review, Melissa! :)

  3. I read another lukewarm review of this book this week. Although I'm curious as to how the issues are handled, I think I will wait until I can get this book at the library.

  4. Wow, this one sounds really interesting.

  5. Your review has left me intrigued. I love that the book is dark. I am curious of the issues dealt with. Nice review!

  6. All these issue books makes me wonder if I have ever read an issue book o_O

  7. I've been waiting to see some reviews of this one as I enjoy reading books with mental illness (maybe 'enjoy' isn't the right word, but they are something I can connect with and understand). I'm glad you really enjoyed it even though you did have a few problems with it. I'll definitely pick it up in the future to see for myself!

  8. This book was not shouting at me to read it :(

    I think I need happier fun paranormal books as of late. I seem to be picking up some fun ones.

    Every Other Day was not too bad since I was not expecting greatness. However, I was pleasantly engrossed in it.


  9. I am really excited about this book, but I admit that I'm hesitant about how the author deals with mental illness. It seems like the author did a good job portraying it, though, so I think I'll be moving this to the top of my TBR list.

  10. Yeah, I have this one, but the fact that you hated Tess makes me think once again that the person with the illness is the monster here, as always. I may just donate this one away.



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