Review: A World Without You by Beth Revis
This book was borrowed from the Yolo County Public Library Davis branch.
(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)
“Seventeen-year-old Bo has always had delusions that he can travel through time. When he was ten, Bo claimed to have witnessed the Titanic hit an iceberg, and at fifteen, he found himself on a Civil War battlefield, horrified by the bodies surrounding him. So when his worried parents send him to a school for troubled youth, Bo assumes he knows the truth: that he’s actually attending Berkshire Academy, a school for kids who, like Bo, have ‘superpowers.’
At Berkshire, Bo falls in love with Sofía, a quiet girl with a tragic past and the superpower of invisibility. Sofia helps Bo open up in a way he never has before. In turn, Bo provides comfort to Sofía, who lost her mother and two sisters at a very young age.
But even the strength of their love isn’t enough to help Sofia escape her deep depression. After she commits suicide, Bo is convinced that she’s not actually dead. He believes that she’s stuck somewhere in time—that he somehow left her in the past, and that now it’s his job to save her. And as Bo becomes more and more determined to save Sofía, he must decide whether to face his demons head-on or succumb to a psychosis that will let him be with the girl he loves.”
This turned out to be a more complicated book than I expected. From the description, I thought that this would simply be a book about mental illness. And that does form a large component of the book. Something that I appreciated was the fact that the author did not pin Bo down to a simple diagnosis. For one thing, mental illness is rarely that simple. For another, a firm diagnosis brings with it a certain set of expectations. Some of the tension in this novel comes from the reader’s inability to predict what will happen next. Bo’s delusions and near catatonic episodes will keep you guessing.
On another level, this is a love story. Bo’s love for Sofia leads him to risk himself over and over in his quest to rescue her from being stranded in time. It doesn’t matter whether or not her plight is real, because that’s not the point. What we see is a boy who has lost the girl he loves and his realization that no matter how he felt about her, he still didn’t see her for who she really was. I suppose that this is a common characterization of young love, but it’s especially poignant here given the situation.
I was surprised to see chapters narrated from the point of view of Bo’s sister Phoebe, but it wasn’t too long until I realized their purpose. On one hand, they give you the outsider’s perspective on Bo’s actions; on the other hand, they give you insight into the family’s dynamics. This kind of sets up Bo as an unreliable narrator, but it is important to realize just how pervasive his illness is –not just for him but for his family. Phoebe’s chapters give us a glimpse into the effect on her and her parents, and an insight into their feelings about the situation.
But looking deeper, I realized that this book has a theme that goes beyond mental illness, which hopefully many readers have not had to deal with. That theme is how people cope with trauma and stress. We see the various ways the characters deal with things–the father buries himself in work, the mother in housecleaning–as well as how those coping strategies stem from both the characters’ personalities and their environment. What I found the most fascinating, though, was how the author is subtly showing us what happens when coping mechanisms become unhealthy. This is, obviously, most prominent in how Bo’s delusions allow him to construct an entire reality in which Sofía is still alive. But we also see how Phoebe’s goal of escaping to college begins to suffocate her under the weight of expectations, the father’s inability to accept his son’s condition leads him to neglect his family as a whole, and the mother’s need for order stifles communication about difficult subjects.
While I wouldn’t recommend this novel as a necessarily faithful portrait of mental illness and its treatment, the broader issues that it tackles are well done and thought provoking. A World Without You should appeal to teens looking for books on family dynamics that are slightly outside the normal fare.