Book review: Without Tess by Marcella Pixley

Without Tess by Marcella Pixley. New York: Square Fish, ©2011.

This is another Booksale find. Without Tess is a young adult novel, and it tells the story of Lizzie, a teenager who still struggles with the memory of the death of her sister Tess. She was ten and Tess was twelve when she died. Lizzie is now fifteen, and the death of Tess three years ago still affects her in the present. Tess was a child who was in her own world, who believed in magic, which wasn't just childish magical thinking but bordered on delusional. She totally believed in a make-believe reality, and Lizzie was always part of her strange games. Tess believes she has powers, and she has been (in her imagination which she mistakes as real) a wolf, a horse, a selkie, and other fantasy creatures.

Soon, their parents realize there is something wrong with Tess. They try to do what they can to treat her, but it was too late. This is a story about the tragedy and how Lizzie will accept and move on from it.

The story is told from Lizzie's perspective as she struggles with school. She regularly meets the school guidance counselor Dr. Kaplan for therapy. She has one thing left from Tess - a notebook she calls the "Pegasus Journal" which has Tess's morbid and magical drawings and poetry. In a writing class, instead of writing her own poems, she submits those by Tess instead. The story shifts from past to present. Lizzie tells her childhood memories with Tess, and how she deals with it in the present. The main suspense of the book is how Tess dies. Lizzie must learn to come into terms with Tess's death and her involvement in it.

The book is similar to another book I liked, The Last Time We Say Goodbye by Cynthia Hand (link leads to my review). In that book, a girl tries to move on from the suicide of her younger brother, though the characters are much older than Without Tess. Like that book, the story also shifts from past to present, and the main mystery is how or why the other sibling died. The sister also has some guilt from the death and has to learn to accept it. However, in my opinion, The Last Time is the superior book and more emotionally affecting.

Lizzie is a teenager with the predictable rebellion and angst (made worse by her sister's tragedy), and as I was reading I pictured her perpetually rolling her eyes at older people and saying words always dripping with sarcasm. As Lizzie narrates her younger days with Tess, I think it's an accurate portrayal of how siblings typically treat each other when they're children - the younger always seeking the approval of the older, but resenting them at the same time. Lizzie's family is also Jewish, but they are not that religious. It's interesting to learn a little bit about this culture from the book.

Tess died young, and from her behavior, she is mentally ill. In the book, she was diagnosed as psychotic - a condition where "a person cannot tell what is real from what is imagined. The main feature of this disorder is the presence of delusions, unshakable beliefs in something untrue or not based on reality." (source: WebMD)

I don't really feel Lizzie as a character and she has a rushed love story in the last chapters. The book shines in its sympathetic portrayal of mental illness (for a more adult take on this topic, I really love The Drowning Girl: a memoir by Caitlin R. Kiernan). I also like the short poems written by Tess in between chapters. I wished that there were illustrations of Tess's drawings as they were only described by Lizzie, but also those drawings are way too morbid for a YA book. Tess has an amazing imagination, and even if she is 'delusional', there is a certain magical and childlike beauty to her fantasies.

While it wasn't exactly mind-blowing, I think it's a good take on mental illness, siblings, grief, and moving on.

Post a Comment


  1. The themes remind me of Missing May, a children's book and a Newbery awardee.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation. I usually download a sample in Amazon first before I decide to buy/read a book, so I'll check it out.