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  • Writer's pictureThe Bossy Bookworm

Review of With or Without You by Caroline Leavitt

What if you woke up from a coma and felt differently about almost everything, including the person you're supposed to love?

In Leavitt's novel, Simon and Stella have been in New York City for twenty years, living through the ups and downs and joys and stresses of a decades-long relationship. Simon has been hoping all along that his struggling music career would someday take off, but it didn't look as though his dreams would ever come true. Stella is a nurse with practical and specific goals: she wants to get married, have a baby, and buy their apartment.

Simon finally gets a chance to go on tour with his band to open for a major act, and just as he's letting his hopes soar that this might finally be his big break, Stella falls into a coma. He should stay, but will he go? And what will happen to their long-held dynamic when Stella wakes up a different person, with new and artistic gifts of her own?

In With or Without You, Leavitt explores fascinating angles related to memory and self. What happens to a relationship when the people in it change, and their dreams along with them? What does commitment mean when the essence of a person within the relationship changes? What if you wake up one day and feel differently than you did before—about physical attraction, former passions, what’s funny, and even what tastes good to you--about the things that make you you?

A couple of minor grumbles: I had to suspend my disbelief about the artist being able to see the true secrets in her subjects (she is able to see just from studying a woman's appearance that a younger lover had left her and broke her heart, etc.), but I did bask in the warmth of that artist-subject connection. The whirlwind wrap-up of one late-book emergent surprise felt abrupt and a little unsatisfying, yet I liked that, most importantly, Stella looked within herself for answers.

Any Bossy thoughts about this book?

This didn’t go exactly where I thought it would (as far as who was with whom, doing what, and where) by the finish of the book, and I was hooked on finding out where things would go. I do love a "what if?" setup.

I mentioned this book in the Greedy Reading List Three Books I'm Reading Now, 1/6/21 Edition.


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