Summary from Goodreads:
Seventeen-year-old Lennie Walker, bookworm and band geek, plays second clarinet and spends her time tucked safely and happily in the shadow of her fiery older sister, Bailey. But when Bailey dies abruptly, Lennie is catapulted to center stage of her own life—and, despite her nonexistent history with boys, suddenly finds herself struggling to balance two. Toby was Bailey's boyfriend; his grief mirrors Lennie's own. Joe is the new boy in town, a transplant from Paris whose nearly magical grin is matched only by his musical talent. For Lennie, they're the sun and the moon; one boy takes her out of her sorrow, the other comforts her in it. But just like their celestial counterparts, they can't collide without the whole wide world exploding.
It’s funny how I almost always prefer “old” YA realistic fiction to the newer releases. (“Old” in this case being anything between 2009 and 2012.) Considering the fact that it was published right in the realistic fiction sweet spot, I should have read The Sky Is Everywhere a long time ago, back when I first heard about it three years ago. But I didn’t read it until a week before 2015, which is really just ridiculous when you think about it, because this book is fantastic in so many ways, and though I’ve read a lot of books dealing with grief, I’ve never read one that approaches it quite like Jandy Nelson has here.
One thing I know was a major aspect keeping me from picking up this book were reviewers’ descriptions of Nelson’s prose. I got the impression that the author’s writing was flowery, highbrow, riddled with metaphors and pretentious allusions. Actually, it’s not. Nelson has in her possession not one but two(!) MFAs, and it’s very obvious that she’s spent time in a professional setting, honing her craft and workshopping the bejeezus out of her work. At the same time, The Sky Is Everywhere doesn’t read like some inaccessible work of modern literature. The main character, Lennie, might be a book snob, but this book itself is not snobby or difficult to reach.
In fact, The Sky Is Everywhere is at once completely down-to-earth and also quite wacky—everyone in this book is weird and wholly themselves. From Gram the Garden Guru to Uncle Big, resident pothead and necromancer, to Sarah the goth cowgirl—everyone in this book is just a little bit more different that anyone you’d meet on your average journey around town. Yet in spite of the memorable characters, Nelson still tells a story of grief and love and family that seems, if not universal, to be entirely authentic and true to life as Lennie knows it.
In terms of story, I’ve see this basic set-up before. YA novels about grief aren’t too terribly uncommon. But Jandy Nelson’s take on it seems to be so much more honest and raw and emotional than any others I’ve read. (Perhaps this goes back to the fact that this book is almost 5 years past its publication date, and is therefore probably one of the first books that dealt with a grieving teen.) Lennie’s reactions to her sister’s unexpected death are both heartbreaking and hilarious—hypersexualization being one of the ways her stress reveals itself. At one point, Lennie is eating breakfast with her grandma and uncle and remarks that she’s finding it difficult not to make out with her spoon. The reader watches as Lennie is strangely drawn to her dead sister’s boyfriend, even though she’s fallen in love with a boy from the school band. The Sky Is Everywhere provides a case where the love triangle is hugely important to the plot and character development of the book, and this book is probably the biggest argument I can think of as to why love triangle are good in fiction (if done well, of course).
Lennie herself was, if not a character I emotionally connected with, a very well-written and fully realized young woman. Though her grief for her sister is at the center of her portrayal, Nelson allows this grief to bring Lennie into a fuller understanding of herself, how she relates with others, and how she interacts with the world. This is very much a coming of age tale, and in spite of the book’s brevity, I thought it was a well-done, complete story in terms of Lennie’s growth as a person.
Though I didn’t unreservedly love this book, I still liked it immensely. Jandy Nelson’s talent is evident, and I think this story needed very little, if any, improvement. The Sky Is Everywhere is one of the best YA books dealing with grief and loss I’ve ever read; I think it would be hard to top this in terms of realism, personality, or heart.