Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Review: Without Tess by Marcella Pixley

From Goodreads: 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. 

My Rating: 3 hearts 

Thoughts on the Novel: Without Tess by Marcella Pixley is a book that explores the bond between sisters while attempting to determine the line between child play and mental disorder. For psychologists and psychiatrists, diagnosing a mental disorder like childhood psychosis can be really tough because children tend to naturally be imaginative.

Although the reader doesn’t know the circumstances around her death, it’s established right from the start that Tess is dead and has been for a while. Thus, other than the insight provided by Tess’ Pegasus Journal full of creepy sketches and poems, the reader can never see things from her perspective. Instead, you see and learn about Tess through her sister Lizzie’s memories.

The young Tess appears to be fine, if not a little too creative. However, as the girls get older, Tess begins to get stranger. For example, Tess claims to be a selkie when she’s at the beach with Lizzie and refuses to believe otherwise. Insistent on proving that she’s right, – and not an ordinary human like Lizzie – the two girls lie still on the cold water and let it wash over them. As the tide gets higher and the waves get bigger, Lizzie soon freaks out (unlike Tess) and ends up bashing her head on a rock, not the first time she suffers because of Tess’ wild imagination.

When a new family eventually moves in and the sisters begin to drift apart due to Lizzie’s friendship with Isabella, a jealous Tess tells Lizzie on the night of a full moon that she might turn into a wolf and murder Isabella. Scary and confusing, Pixley makes it completely clear that Tess needs help. As an aside, I also began to question Lizzie’s sanity during this part of the story – did she delude herself into thinking that Tess had changed into a wolf or was she aware that Tess was a girl?

Since Tess was so interesting and there was such a strong focus on her, I thought the character of Lizzie kind of fell by the wayside. It’s obvious that Lizzie idolized her older sister before starting to resent the attention Tess tended to receive from others, but other than that I felt like I barely knew her. In particular, I felt really closed off from Lizzie in the present because she refuses to interact with others (since she feels guilty about her sister’s death).

When Lizzie finally does begin to open herself up to someone other than her therapist, I couldn’t buy it. Having seen Niccolo interact with both Tess and Lizzie from Lizzie’s childhood memories, knowing that he was better friends with Tess, and the fact that Lizzie doesn’t hang out with anybody, the attraction between him and Lizzie just felt forced. Their spontaneous makeout session was totally unexpected and to me, it seemed like Niccolo was transferring his possible childhood feelings for Tess (after having read her Pegasus Journal) onto Lizzie.

A book that’s probably best suited for those interested in psychological issues and who don’t mind a slow-paced, character-driven novel, Without Tess was released yesterday by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 

Comments About the Cover: Since grief plays an important part of the storyline in Without Tess, I think it’s appropriate that the cover show a funeral lily and feature the first two lines in the book: “I know I never said goodbye; I couldn’t bear to see you cry.”

In exchange for an honest review, this ARC was received from the publisher (Macmillan Children's Publishing Group) for free via NetGalley.


  1. This does seem a strange and creepy book. While the slow plot is a bit of a deterrent, I'm interested in the psychological issues presented and usually prefer character driven novels instead of plot driven. I'll put this one on my tbr pile. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  2. Thanks for the review. But don't think I'll be reading Without Tess.

  3. Hm. Not sure this is the one for me. As much as I love a good character driven novel, I think the Lizzie/Niccolo randomness would probably frustrate me just a bit. I really like the overall premise though:) Thanks for the review Zahida!

  4. Poor Lizzie. She can't seem to get out from under Tess' shadow. Too bad she wasn't better developed, because her role sounds like one that could have resonated with many.

    I'm interested in psychological issues, but this one seems a bit too messy for me. Thanks for your honest thoughts, Z!

  5. I don't mind a character driven novel but the way you describe Lizzie makes me a bit wary. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. =)


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