The Sky Is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson (Dial/Penguin, $17.99, 9780803734951/0803734956, 288pp., ages 14-up, March 9, 2010)
Debut novelist Jandy Nelson possesses a rare gift for language and a finely tuned ear--two characteristics that gracefully combine in her 17-year-old heroine, Lennie, who writes poems to her sister and, when unleashed, plays a mean clarinet. From the opening paragraph, the author brilliantly navigates Lennie's course between despair and hope, sorrow and humor, after the death of the her 19-year-old sister: "Gram is worried about me. It's not just because my sister Bailey died four weeks ago, or because my mother hasn't contacted me in sixteen years, or even because suddenly all I think about is sex. She is worried about me because one of her houseplants has spots." Gram is a Garden Guru, whose roses are known to cause "mad love to flourish." This particular houseplant, Gram believes, "reflects [Lennie's] emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being." But this time, Gram fears she may not know the cure.
When Lennie cannot find words to express her grief, she reaches for metaphor, the language of poetry: "It's as if someone vacuumed up the horizon while we were looking the other way." And when she needs to connect with Bailey, who died suddenly from a fatal arrhythmia, Lennie writes poems. She scribbles one on a to-go cup that she drops on the banks of the Rain River, and another on a scrap she leaves under a bench outside Maria's Deli: "In photographs of us together,/ she is always looking at the camera,/ and I am always looking at her." As a published poet, Jandy Nelson moves fluidly from poetic prose to the poems that Lennie writes to Bailey, which appear in nearly every chapter. They work in tandem to reveal the bottomless well of love that accompanies Lennie's grief.
Lennie basked in what she calls Bailey's "wattage." They shared everything--a bedroom and secrets, and their dreams for the future. In their town, the sisters were famous for "road-reading." One day, while Lennie walked along immersed in her copy of Wuthering Heights, and Bailey with her Like Water for Chocolate, a young man rode up on horseback, and took Bailey's breath away. His name was Toby. The only time Lennie felt left out was when Bailey and Toby were together. Now the only one who seems to understand Lennie is Toby. Her sexual stirrings when they are together feel taboo, but they are mutual. And electric. The author makes clear the connection between them when they kiss: "In that moment I feel like Toby and I together have, somehow, in some way, reached across time, and pulled Bailey back."
Meanwhile, Lennie is shutting out everyone else who's ever been close to her: Gram and Uncle Big, and her best friend, Sarah, who'd "be the perfect cheerleader if she weren't so disgusted by the notion of school spirit." Lennie has stopped her private clarinet lessons, and eats lunch alone in the treetops at school. But she finds a welcome (and persistent) companion in Joe Fontaine--the gorgeous classmate who arrived at school during Lennie's month-long absence and who seems to excel at every musical instrument. Lennie tells herself, "He only thinks I'm pretty, only thinks I'm amazing, because he never met Bailey." Joe is a fresh start: "I look into his sorrowless eyes and a door in my heart blows open. And when we kiss, I see that on the other side of that door is sky." But Joe challenges Lennie, too. He observes her on clarinet and tells her she has "loads of technique… but it's like it all stops there…. It's like you're sleep-playing or something." His observation hits on a thorny truth, which recurs in a subtheme like a haunting refrain.
Jandy Nelson constructs a suspenseful and gripping love triangle with two memorable suitors who expose the entangled joy and pain at the root of the heroine's decision: Will Lennie embrace Toby and the past, or will she pursue with Joe the possibility of a future filled with music and a spotlight of her own? Jandy Nelson never lets the romance turn saccharine, cutting through with a dose of humor at just the right moment ("Bailey's exasperation at my disinterest in boys was as perpetual as my exasperation at her preoccupation with them"). All of the living, breathing characters in Lennie's circle spring from the pages, and the author allows readers to see their sorrow even when Lennie is blind to it. As Lennie begins to discover new things about Bailey, herself, and those around her, readers will be rooting for her to embrace life, and to know that this is what everyone--including Bailey--would wish for her.