Lennie Walker, a clarinetist and bookworm is the female protagonist of Jandy Nelson’s debut novel, “The Sky is Everywhere”. Throughout Lennie’s life she has lived unconsciously happy and safely tucked behind the shadow of her sanguine and uninhibited older sister, Bailey. These two sisters formed a deep bond from the loss of a significant force in their life and because of this, they have developed a very similar way of life. However, Bailey dies abruptly from arrhythmia and Lennie’s life is catapulted to centre stage where she has to make decisions independently, as well as navigate through life’s experiences without her fiery sister’s input or presence. One of these decisions include romantic relationships with boys. After her sister’s death, Lennie suddenly finds herself balancing a relationship between two boys despite her non-existent history with boys. On one hand is Joe Fountaine, a new transplant in town from France and lover of music, who is also passionate about life itself and the ideals of living, such that sometimes, his smiles and love of life shines brighter than the sun. On the other hand is Toby, Bailey’s boyfriend, a somewhat cross between cowboy and dear-devil, and his grief over Bailey’s death mirrors Lennie’s own. As Nelson states, “For Lennie they are the sun and the moon; one boy takes her out of her sorrow while the other comforts her in it. But just like their celestial counterparts, they can’t collide without the whole world exploding”.
For days, I’ve struggled to write a review of this extraordinary book written by Jandy Nelson. Not because the book isn’t great, but because I don’t think my vocabulary is vast enough to write a thoroughly justifying review. But I’ve come to accept that no matter how I write this review, it’ll never do the actual book justice. Nelson’s writing shines incomparable in this book and if the plot summary doesn’t intrigue you already, then the rest of my review may risk making the book seem very mundane by stating that it is about a girl coping through grief in the presence of two polar opposite boys, the typical boy-girl drama. If you’re a romantic cynicist, this will seem like every teenage romantic drama novel. But, just know that with a different lens, this book is simply beyond that; it is for people going through a great loss or have ever experienced what a great loss feels like. Of course, there are several themes that were also touched upon in the book, and they include romance, love, family, friendship, music, coping, healing and so much more. But what is most overpowering is the allegory I believe Nelson used to describe how a seventeen-year-old girl healed and almost got over a world without her beloved older sister.
Let’s discuss the allegories in the book. My alternate theory is that this book had no romance at all. The introduction of Joe and Toby as the protagonist’s love interests was Nelson’s way of letting us know how people cope with grief by bringing the two major ways to life – either by sinking into grief and relishing in it until you’ve lost yourself or by moving past it and healing to regain yourself. On the one hand is Joe who is a very carefree, charming and passionate musician, who only moved to town after Bailey’s death. Lennie described him by stating, “And then he smiles, and in all the places around the globe where it’s night, day breaks.” She also described Joe in another part of the book, “The guy’s life drunk, I think he makes Candide look like a sourpuss. Does he even know that death exists?”
Joe’s character may have been introduced to represent the fate of Lennie’s character if she were to move past her grief and begin to regain her lost self. He is a lover of music, and so is Lennie, infact her name in full is Lennon, and as you guessed, it was inspired by John Lennon of The Beatles. In the presence of grief, music is often used to cope and the re-introduction of music into Lennie’s life through Joe may have been Nelson’s way of showcasing just how much music heals. Another symbolism with Joe is that he only appears after Bailey’s death and although he consoled Lennie a few times when she attempted to describe the effect her sister’s death had on her, he also tried to make Lennie forget the tragedy she was going through. In addition, Joe always promised Lennie a passionate life with him and tried to show her what life had to offer her after grief; playing music, moving to France, as well as smiling and laughing everyday. Joe’s promises symbolize hope and the power of time. Hope that there is still something better yet to come and that sometimes rainbows only appear after terrible rainstorms. Time because as day goes by and as the ticks on the clock go on, your wounds will heal. Joe was Lennie’s reminder of life after the storm, her own life raft, he was her anchor and he was a promise of a better life after a great deep loss. Although they had a few romance scenes, I think that was Nelson’s way of showing us just how seductive the charm of a rainbow could be.
On the other hand is Toby, a skater, sometimes dark, reckless and solitary. He represents Lennie’s grief. She described the feeling she gets when she’s with Toby by stating, “When I’m with him, there is someone with me in my house of grief, someone who knows its architecture as I do, who can walk with me, from room to sorrowful room, making the whole rambling structure of wind and emptiness not quite as scary, as lonely as it was before”. This description illustrates how people often feel in the hands of death and loss. They often feel like they should wallow in it, because how can the world keep going when a great loss has just occurred? How can people still go on with their lives?
Toby represented this reminder to Lennie; he mirrored her grief to the point where he was almost the grief she was feeling inside of her. Toby’s character simply represented the darkness, and the solitary feeling Lennie was going through over losing her better half, her sister, Bailey. People going through loss are often hungrily drawn to this type of grief, where they feel very alone and sometimes fail to see the point to life.
However, at some point in the book, all these three characters finally meet, Lennie, Joe and Toby, and it is exactly like Nelson described, an explosion of celestial counterparts that occurs with Lennie stuck in the middle. The hidden symbols created by Nelson became evident when after the three characters meet, Joe flees and Toby doesn’t. Ultimately grief and pain demand to be felt, and are often more seductive than the many rainbows and sunshine life has to offer. Nonetheless, after this occurs, Lennie states, “I want to be in love. I want to feel this joy. I don’t want to deal with Toby, with sorrow and grief and guilt and death. I’m so sick of death”. This statement was Lennie’s ultimate freedom that unchained her and freed her from Toby and the seduction of grief, and wallowing in guilt and loneliness. This signified to me that sometimes time eventually heals the deepest wounds and all begin to seem right in the world again. So, for some that read this book and had questions like “Why did Lennie suddenly become a ‘boy magnet’ ”, I hope I have been able to provide an answer with my theory on hidden meanings in the book.
Lastly, I’d like to commend Nelson’s writing and her ability to bring such great characters to life through her rich, beautiful and compelling story telling. I’ve described her writing in this book as the cold breeze that both caresses you and massages you on a hot summer day. It is that good! She was able to bring such brilliant characters to life from the depths of her imagination. Other relevant characters that were not mentioned in the above review were Lennie and Bailey’s uncle called Big, the town’s chronic womanizer, pot head and self proclaimed scientist/healer. His way of coping through his niece’s death was by getting high from smoking marijuana and trying to invent a device that could bring dead bugs back to life so that he could hopefully restore his niece’s life back. I believe the reason he was never successful with this invention was because no matter how many times we try in our heads to find scenarios and ways we could have prevented the death of someone we loved or perhaps even think of ways to bring them back, the ultimate truth is that sometimes there are just things beyond our own sheer limit and power. The other major character illustrated in the book is Lennie and Bailey’s grandmother and guardian, whom they often simply referred to as Gram. She is a hippie, botanist, feminist and artist. She is described as humorously erratic and entertaining, and the main maternal figure of the book. Finally, the last character described by Nelson is Sarah, Lennie’s best friend, who is a self-proclaimed feminist, and world idealist. She begged for Lennie to open up to her about what she was going through and when Lennie eventually did, their friendship although tested by the popular fate of “growing apart with time” was simply renewed and stronger.
For a brief summary, Jandy Nelson is a great writer, who may very well be one of my favourite writers till date. She wrote a great and incredibly compelling book on a teenage girl’s life and how she coped through grief with the help of two major symbolic characters, Joe and Toby, with additional help from Gram, Big and Sarah. This book epitomizes the strength of family and friendships in the face of loss and the true idea and significance behind all the relationships we form and experience in life. I can’t say enough about this book but that you should simply take the time to swim in Nelson’s deep fictional imagination, which may very well be a true-life story of many Lennie(s) living in the world, all around us. In the end, what I took from this story like Lennie is that you need not only look up at the sky because that is a misconception, as the sky is everywhere, it begins at your feet.
To know more about the author, Jandy Nelson, watch the video below and visit her official website here.