June 29, 2021
Blurb: New York Times bestselling author Caroline Leavitt writes novels that expertly explore the struggles and conflicts that people face in their search for happiness. For the characters in With or Without You, it seems at first that such happiness can come only at someone else’s expense. Stella is a nurse who has long suppressed her own needs and desires to nurture the dreams of her partner, Simon, the bass player for a rock band that has started to lose its edge. But when Stella gets unexpectedly ill and falls into a coma just as Simon is preparing to fly with his band to Los Angeles for a gig that could revive his career, Simon must learn the meaning of sacrifice, while Stella’s best friend, Libby, a doctor who treats Stella, must also make a difficult choice as the coma wears on.
When Stella at last awakes from her two-month sleep, she emerges into a striking new reality where Simon and Libby have formed an intense bond, and where she discovers that she has acquired a startling artistic talent of her own: the ability to draw portraits of people in which she captures their innermost feelings and desires. Stella’s whole identity, but also her role in her relationships, has been scrambled, and she has the chance to form a new life, one she hadn’t even realized she wanted.
A story of love, loyalty, loss, and resilience, With or Without You is a page-turner that asks the question, What do we owe the other people in our lives, and when does the cost become too great?
Many thanks to Algonquin Books for this opportunity to participate in the paperback release of With or Without You by Caroline Leavitt.
I imagine that you’ll probably judge me for what I’m about to say, but that’s okay–with me at least. When With or Without You began with a woman, Stella, complaining that she needed to have a child just as I had just finished reading a book about another woman complaining about not having a child, I thought, oh no, not again. And then because Stella was sick, had taken a Sudafed, drank multiple glasses of wine, and then had a pink pill that was not what it seemed and she slipped into a coma, I thought, well at least she’s stopped whining. So, yes, I was happy to see her go into a coma. Heartless, aren’t I? (But at least she’s fictional and I wasn’t glad about a real person!)
From then, however, With or Without You became a book I didn’t want to put down. The writing was so inviting. The characters so engaging, despite their flaws.
Stella and Simon are a sigh-worthy couple. They are lit inside by each other, even twenty years later. But as the novel progresses we are led to presume that some things are on the surface, and it’s only later as confidences are shared that we see that maybe that electricity wasn’t still there. (But to me it felt like it. And, to me, that was one of those most heart-breaking aspects of this novel or maybe a flaw. At the beginning of the novel, I seriously felt like they were golden, electric. Magic. And, what kind of book would it have become if that magic had been pursued?)
With Stella in a coma, her best friend, Libby, who’s a doctor at the hospital where Stella is a nurse, comes to know Simon who she’s always thought was so undeserving of Stella. He was self-absorbed, treated Stella badly while Libby thought Stella was one of the best people ever. But Simon changes. He becomes the person Stella always wanted him to be. He diligently cleans their apartment, does the bills, welcomes his mother-in-law happily into their apartment and his life. He becomes responsible and organized; he becomes an adult. And, he and Libby become something.
Then Stella wakes up from her coma. She’s a different person. She has become someone else and she is no longer an identifiable part of their lives.
With or Without You was one of those books I just couldn’t put down. I wasn’t always pleased with the twists and turns, but I appreciated them and understood why they happened. I was not always a fan of Stella’s but understood that events were occurring in the aftermath of her coma that couldn’t always be rational. That she was not always rational.
What I felt With or Without You accentuated was the humanness of the human experience. How flawed we are, even when we want to be better. How we change, even when others don’t want or expect us to change. That reaching for a past after changes have happened will make us feel even emptier inside. How we must flow with changes and learn to grow or accept. How easily we misunderstand and sometimes never completely understand the events that have made us who we are.
Leavitt’s writing is frequently brilliant. I loved how she portrayed Stella’s artistic growth. How circles drawn on a page inevitably become something more and become a circle of humanity that Stella becomes engrossed in.
While there were betrayals in the novel, I nevertheless felt like it became a novel of hope. Even the last few words on the last page transitioned to great hope for a beautiful future. And, like Stella’s transformation after awakening from her coma, it gave me the feeling that anything is possible.
I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
5 out of 5 butterflies