Seventeen-year-old Lennie has felt completely lost since her older sister Bailey, aspiring actress and all around amazing gal, died suddenly from a heart arrhythmia right in the middle of play practice. Always in Bailey’s shadow, now shy Lennie doesn’t know how to be in the sun without her big sis. Further complicating matters is the fact that the sisters were raised by Gram and hippie Uncle Big because their mom left town when they were tots and hasn’t been heard from since. Gram is convinced that one day she’ll return, but Bailey dreads ever seeing her now and having to tell her she is abruptly, horribly one daughter short. Then there’s Lennie’s love life, which shouldn’t matter like a time like this, but is absurdly taking center stage. For a girl who’s barely kissed a boy, she suddenly has two ardent beaus on her hands: French songwriter Joe Fontaine whose long eyelashes and composing skills make her heart sing, and skater boy Toby, whose passionate kisses ease the pain of Baily’s passing—because he also happens to have been Bailey’s boyfriend. “I kiss him back and don’t want to stop because in that moment I feel like Toby and I together have somehow…reached across time, and pulled Bailey back.” Yeah. As you can clearly see, it’s a mess. What do you say to a heartbroken boy who whispers, “I just want to be near you. It’s the only time I don’t die missing her.” ? Full of shame, guilt, lust and fear, Lennie juggles both boys, while trying to discover who she really loves and who she really is without Bailey to lead the way. “How can something this momentous be happening to me without her? And what about all the momentous things to come? How will I go through each and every one of them without her?”
What’s so unusual and super interesting about this debut tearjerker is Jandy Nelson’s fearless acknowledgment and exploration of the presence of sexual feelings in the midst of grief, and how these feelings can come on strong as a reaction against death. Lustful longings during a time of mourning are inconvenient and embarrassing to say the least, and Nelson captures that beautifully in Lennie’s shamefaced voice: “I am totally out of control. I do not think this is how normal people mourn.” These feelings, which come up at the most inappropriate times, also show how Lennie is developing as a person separate from her sister. In many ways, grief and her subsequent sexual awakening are making her over into a whole new being: “..what if somewhere inside I prefer this? What if as much as I fear having death as a shadow, I’m beginning to like how it quickens the pulse, not only mine, but the pulse of the whole world.” While I don’t think Sky has knocked Before I Fall out of the top weepy chick lit spot in my heart, it came pretty darn close. There’s some trailing plot threads that didn’t get tied up to my satisfaction, and some characters I would have liked to have seen more of (like mean Rachel, who I imagined looking like a blonde Lea Michele from Glee) But Nelson has a way with words, and certain phrases caught my attention and tugged at my heart, like this poignant expression about why Lennie has to stop hanging out with Toby, no matter how comfortable it is: “We can’t keep wrapping our arms around a ghost.” If you liked the weeptastic Broken Soup or Would You, you’ll definitely want to laugh and sob your way through Sky.