Without Tess

( 8 )


Tess and Lizzie are sisters, sisters as close as can be, who share a secret world filled with selkies, flying horses, and a girl who can transform into a wolf  in the middle of the night. But when Lizzie is ready to grow up, Tess clings to their fantasies. As Tess sinks deeper and deeper into her delusions, she decides that she can’t live in the real world any longer and leaves Lizzie and her family forever. Now, years later, Lizzie is in high school and struggling to understand what happened ...

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Without Tess

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Tess and Lizzie are sisters, sisters as close as can be, who share a secret world filled with selkies, flying horses, and a girl who can transform into a wolf  in the middle of the night. But when Lizzie is ready to grow up, Tess clings to their fantasies. As Tess sinks deeper and deeper into her delusions, she decides that she can’t live in the real world any longer and leaves Lizzie and her family forever. Now, years later, Lizzie is in high school and struggling to understand what happened to her sister. With the help of a school psychologist and Tess’s battered journal, Lizzie searches for a way to finally let Tess go.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Without Tess is a psychological thriller, a book of profound truth. Alternating between past and future, between loss and hope, Lizzie’s story will grip you from beginning to end." —Francisco Stork, author of Marcelo in the Real World

"Following up on themes raised in her well-received first novel, Freak, . . . Marcella Pixley continues to explore the complexities of sibling loyalty." —The New York Times

* "Pixley’s memory play is a difficult, sadly beautiful ode to a complex and heartbreaking issue." —Publishers Weekly Online, starred review

* "[A] lyrical, heartrending novel." —School Library Journal, starred review

"Pixley, who skillfully tackled another complicated sisterly relationship in Freak . . . takes a rather provocative step here: she sets up some alluring and imaginative magical conceits that will immediately catch the attention of fantasy readers just as they did Lizzie, and then mercilessly makes their appeal their danger." —The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books

"Smooth, well-paced, and contemporary." —VOYA Online

"Pixley once again plumbs the emotional depths of a tough subject with sensitivity and insight into the complexities of human nature and sibling bonds." —Kirkus Reviews

Children's Literature - Lisette Baez
The bond between sisters is one that is truly special, sometimes unexplainable. Tess and Lizzie shared that bond especially as young girls as they created a secret, make-believe world filled with all things fantasy. The girls' world included flying horses and people that turned into animals but mostly it had the appeal of escaping, the danger of losing oneself. As the girls grew up, Lizzie was ready to move on and put the make-believe world behind her, but Tess could not loosen her tight grip on fantasy. She began to sink deeper and deeper into the dark corners of her mind and her delusions eventually separated her completely from her family. Lizzie is desperate now as a teenager to find out what happened to Tess and embarks on a sad and emotionally taxing journey. With the help of a school psychologist, Lizzie begins to face and understand the cruelties of mental illness. The compelling plot and the multi-faceted characters really lend itself to the intrigue and sadness of the story. The reader will be torn between tears and smiles as this unconditional bond between two sisters unfolds. Reviewer: Lisette Baez
School Library Journal
Gr 7–9—Lizzie Cohen, 9, and her sister, Tess, 11, are incredibly close. They live in a world all their own, filled with selkies, magical toads, and horses with beautiful wings. When Lizzie tries to leave this fantastical world in favor of reality, Tess tries hard to keep her there. Her imagination becomes more and more delusional, and she becomes harmful to herself and others. She starves herself, claiming that she is immortal and doesn't need nourishment. Then she makes a decision that leaves Lizzie, five years later, struggling to confront the past through Tess's worn-out Pegasus Journal, full of poetry and disturbing images. With the help of the school psychologist and a childhood friend, Lizzie tries to find a way to let go of her guilt. Alternating between chapters of prose and poetry, the novel gives readers glimpses into the minds of both girls, balancing past and present and slowly revealing the entire story. The setting is a riverside town, and the pivotal events take place at the razor's edge of fall and winter, creating a chill of apprehension. Girls struggling with anorexia may benefit from reading about an issue that hits close to home, and anyone coping with harmful relationships, especially within the family, will relate to this lyrical, heartrending novel.—Kimberly Castle, Stark County District Library, Canton, OH
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781250044358
  • Publisher: Square Fish
  • Publication date: 5/13/2014
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 642,111
  • Age range: 12 - 18 Years
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Marcella Pixley is a middle school language arts teacher and a writer. Her poetry has been published in various literary journals, and she has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her first book, Freak, received four starred reviews and was named a Kirkus Best Book of the Year. She lives in Westford, Massachusetts, with her husband and two sons.

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Read an Excerpt




Every Wednesday I bring the battered Pegasus Journal into the high school guidance office. I sit in the rocking chair and lean back so it feels as if the world is holding its breath. I’ve grown to like this room. I like the painted masks, each one with its own hollow eyes. I like the wooden animals on the bookshelf: the camel, the stork, the wolf raising her face to the moon; but my favorite of all is the wooden horse that hangs from strings above my head. Its mane and tail are made of real hair, and it has red glass mirrors for eyes. It looks into the distance, its dusty head crooked. Tess would have loved this horse. She would have tried to convince me its eyes could cast a spell. I might have believed her when I was a little girl, but now I know better. There’s no such thing as magic. I’ll never let you go, Lizzie. No matter what happens to me, I’ll never ever let you go.

I always come five minutes early. I like to sit in the rocking chair and breathe away everything real. Bad grades and teachers who frown when they see me. Letters sent home in sealed envelopes. All the kids who give me distance like I’m some kind of human plague walking the hallway. I breathe away the silence of Isabella Amodeo, who has pitied me for almost five years and who continues to pity me, no matter how much time goes by. That first week, she delivered casseroles to our doorstep: warm food drowned in melted cheese and tomato sauce, meals Mamma could place on the table without looking. I remember sitting down to dinner, staring at the empty chair.

Of course, there were other kindnesses too. Floral arrangements delivered to the door from our teachers, bouquets of white funeral lilies so pungent they made me cross-eyed. I smelled nothing but funeral lilies that whole first month. Even outside the house—even when I was able to get away from the parade of relatives and neighbors, people who would look at me with sad eyes and then turn away—the smell of funeral lilies clung to my skin, my hair, my clothes. The scent was so strong I still smell it sometimes when I think about how it felt to be without her for the first time. So that now, sadness still smells like funeral lilies to me, and strangely, so does the feeling of loneliness, and so does the feeling of relief, because those were all things that I had never known before Tess left me just Lizzie all alone.

Dr. Kaplan walks into the office at 12:35 and sits at his desk. “Okay, kiddo,” he says, “just give me a second.” He finds my file and mumble-reads his notes from our last session. Then he settles back into his chair and waits for me to open Tess’s battered Pegasus Journal.

The whole thing with the Pegasus Journal was his idea. At our very first session, I told him about the journal filled with sketches and poems. I told him how I rescued it from her coffin the day of her funeral and carried it home in the inside pocket of my coat, how I couldn’t let them bury it, because I knew that these pages contained the real story of Tess and me and what happened when things changed. Even though I might not want to remember, burying the Pegasus Journal along with Tess would have been criminal. On that first Wednesday, he told me we had no choice. We had to use the Pegasus Journal to help me come to terms with what happened.

“Ready when you are,” Kaplan says, smiling.

It’s time to start. I open the Pegasus Journal. The pages are fragile, dog-eared, smudged with fingerprints and shadows. Here is a girl with worms in her hand. Here is an army of toads. Here is the profile of a drowning horse. But it is Tess’s face that gazes back at me. Tess’s eyes and wild red hair. I catch my breath. I remember the day she drew this. How she rubbed in shadows that made the cheek seem three-dimensional, the ears perfectly lobed like funeral lilies. How she used the back of her thumb to bring out the light in each eye so it looked as though the horse was gazing off into the distance somewhere, at a world unraveling, its tangled mane whipping around its face like the tangled hair of a wild girl who doesn’t even care enough to comb a hand through the snarls. The horse on the page opens its mouth. It is my sister’s voice coming up through the years. I’ll never let you go, Lizzie. No matter what happens to me, I’ll never ever let you go.


Copyright © 2011 by Marcella Pixley

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 8 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Posted October 25, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    An Emotional Read

    Without Tess was a blend of many things: a daring description of mental illness, a beautiful portrayal of the bonds of sisterhood, a book that made me smile and cry. It was one of those novels that I simply couldn't put down and reading page after page after page I found myself drowning in the emotions of the main character--possibly because I understand the sisters' relationship, possibly simply because this book is written in compelling prose.

    Lizzie, our main character, has been trying to cope with her sister's untimely death for five years when the story opens. Told in mix of flashbacks, poetry, and counseling sessions, the story of Tess and Lizzie's intense relationship comes to life before your eyes. Despite the fact that Tess is already dead when the book starts, we get to know her through Lizzie's recollections. It's clear from the beginning that Tess' playful imaginings are more than just make believe to her. Lizzie goes along with everything her sister says from the beginning because she loves her sister more than anything in the world. But when Tess' world of make believe becomes all too real for Lizzie, she has to make the choice to separate herself from her sister's world and that decision haunts her for a long time--well after her sister's death.

    Lizzie is a character that really broke my heart. It was tough to watch her hide herself away from the world because as the outside observer you could tell that she really just needed to talk about what happened--and not to a shrink or her parents. There is such an intense difference between the girl of the flashbacks and present-day Lizzie.

    Tess, despite being dead from the beginning, is a character that you both grow to love and hate through Lizzie's flashbacks. She's rather intense, to say the least, and you watch her wrap Lizzie into her delusions throughout the novel. Tess was a character who made me feel both empathy and anger for her all at the same time. You are literally watching her waste away because of her delusional beliefs, which is heart-breaking, but at the same time, you watch her inflict intense emotional and sometimes physical pain on those around her, especially Lizzie.

    Niccolo was an interesting minor character. I liked how he pursued Lizzie because he didn't push TOO hard, but he made sure that she knew he was there for her. I wanted her to lean on him and finally let SOMEONE in. However, Lizzie and Niccolo's relationship could have made a lot more sense. I understood their little make-out session, but I could have used a little more build-up. Like, maybe that first time could have just been one kiss spurred on my the crying/laughing?

    The end wraps up possibly a little too quickly but in a way that makes sense. Lizzie isn't really "letting go" of Tess, but you finally feel like she has some semblance of inner peace and there's hope for her parents as well. Overall, I thought this was a well-done story of one sister's mental illness and the other's path to forgiveness and letting go. I would recommend it to YA readers who enjoy issue-centered YA reads.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 20, 2014

    Spoilr Great book

    At first i thought it was going to be a sad romance book but it turned out to be my faf book it made me cry but yet it was sooo butiful and very well writen .it just made my heart swell as i was reading. Its one those books.its a MUST READ. : )

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 14, 2012

    Made a grown man cry

    This book mabe my dad cry like a baby. Yup this is a emotional book that will rock ur world. An amazing story about two sisteers, Tess and Lizzy. When Tess comits sueiside, Lizzy is left with the hard task of trying to let Tess go.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 2, 2012

    great book

    This is a good book but sad keep tissues near

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  • Posted October 12, 2011

    Endearing Story of Mental Illness

    When I started this one I wasn't expecting the story that came. This is a tale that weaves in and out of the present and the past, it's as much about Tess and her mental instability as it is about Lizzie and her need to hold onto the sister she loved. I find stories regarding mental illness fascinating and this one was really intriguing because of the fantasy world that Tess lived in. So many times I found myself holding my breath, wondering if that moment was the moment that would change Tess and Lizzie's world, I knew it would happen, I just didn't know when. While Tess is definitely in a different mind frame than most of us, she is still relatable which makes her endearing as she tries to hold on to what makes her happy. Lizzie, even as the little sister, knows the difference between fantasy and reality and at times tries to reel her sister in while at the same time, she wants to believe in her sister's world. It is a heartbreaking story about friendship, family, loss, and survival.

    Reviewed by Jessica for Book Sake.

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  • Posted October 5, 2011

    more from this reviewer


    Without Tess is an achingly gorgeous read. The writing is so lyrical and the characters so vivid, I felt as if I were in the same room with them. The story focuses on Lizzie whose sister Tess died when she was younger. Six years later she is still coping with the grief.

    Eleven-year-old Tess lives in a fantasy world. In the beginning I was able to connect with Tess. Like her, I had a very active imagination when I was young. As the story moves forward, the reader realizes there is something mentally wrong with Tess. She refuses to break out of her fantasies and this causes much pain, both physical and emotional, for her younger sister who just wants to grow up. The book alternates between past and present, allowing the reader to experience Lizzie's childhood with her unpredictable sister, and showing us how Lizzie and her family are still dealing with the death of Tess. The book is also spattered with fantastical poetry written by Tess which helps illustrate the chapters nicely. Though at times the wording in the poetry felt a little mature, even for a precocious eleven-year-old, it didn't bother me. This is a book that could very easily be passed over since it does deal with some darker subject matter, but in my opinion, it's one that should not be missed.

    (Review based on an Advanced Reader's Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley)

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 6, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted May 7, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

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