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With or Without You

Review

With or Without You

From bestselling author Caroline Leavitt comes WITH OR WITHOUT YOU, a poignant, instantly compelling novel about love, change and the power of timing.

Stella and Simon have been together for almost 20 years, yet their relationship still stands on rocky ground. Stella is a 42-year-old nurse who is starting to dream of putting down roots and raising children, and Simon is an aging rocker who claims that his big break is just around the corner.

One night, while preparing to leave for California, the site of Simon’s next gig --- the one that will really put him and his band on the map --- the two start to argue. Stella is tired of coming in second to Simon’s dreams, and Simon is sorely missing the young, spontaneous woman he fell in love with, who never spoke of buying real estate or siring children. Muddled by wine and desperate for a conclusion to their on-again off-again fight, they take some pills that Simon finds in his pocket, hoping to reinvigorate their relationship and find the passion of their youth. But the combination of the alcohol and the mysterious pill proves lethal for Stella, and by morning she has fallen into a coma.

"...a poignant, instantly compelling novel about love, change and the power of timing.... WITH OR WITHOUT YOU is a perfect picture of what [Leavitt] can do when left with a spark of inspiration and a gripping premise."

As Stella swirls in the realms of her psyche, Simon sits by her bedside, steadfastly determined to bring her back from the brink. Although he stays with her day in and day out, long past visiting hours, he senses that one of her doctors, Libby, dislikes and distrusts him. Over time, he learns that she and Stella are friends, and she always has considered him to be out of Stella's league. She never got the appeal of his long-haired, greasy rocker look and saw only his faults: his inability to pay the bills, his willingness to leave Stella behind to go on tour, etc.

Seeing himself through Libby’s eyes, and hell bent on proving himself worthy of Stella’s return to consciousness, Simon slowly starts to improve himself. Bolstered by the routine required of him to see Stella daily and coordinate the rest of his life, he is growing into the adult Stella always wanted him to be. But he can’t help but wonder, Why now?

Having missed the opportunity of a lifetime in California and being effectively dropped by his bandmates, Simon takes center stage in the narrative, with Leavitt tracking his character growth, devotion to Stella, and the quiet, niggling attraction growing between him and Libby, the two people who love Stella the most. With Libby’s life unraveling in similar ways, the two strike up a careful friendship that continuously toes the line between friends and something more. And then the unthinkable happens: Stella wakes up.

But the Stella who greets Simon and Libby is not the one they remember. She is guarded and thrill-seeking, and contrary to her previous passion for nursing, she has a newfound drive to make art. While she is desperate to drop back into her old life, it feels nearly impossible: Simon is practically a stranger, and Libby seems more interested in doctoring her than being there for her as a friend. With Stella keeping everyone at bay, her relationships begin to unravel in shocking and painful ways. Putting all of her pain, frustration and hurt into her art, Stella starts to realize that she has accessed a deeper, more intuitive part of herself --- one that can see right through the people around her, even though it cannot turn the same keen eye on itself.

It is easy to sum up Stella’s journey from pill-popper to coma patient to miraculous warrior, but WITH OR WITHOUT YOU is far more perfectly paced than this review makes it seem. Leavitt layers every page with suspense and potential --- both for celebration and devastation --- and measures them out in equal parts, letting the narrative ebb and flow in ways that are both comfortably predictable and jump-out-of-your-chair shocking. This is a deeply moving novel, and the way that Leavitt plays with fate, the shifting of time and her own characters’ growth drives the emotion home to make it all the more intimate and personal.

Although Stella is technically the main character, it is Simon who experiences the most growth and has the most satisfying story arc. Leavitt allows him to surprise and upend readers’ and his own expectations at nearly every turn, while still keeping his character grounded and believable. Libby, though she plays the part of an adulteress, is equally satisfying to read; she, too, has her own history that Leavitt unpacks beautifully. But of course, it is Stella who is the real cornerstone of the book, and who Leavitt works and reworks with compassion, a keen eye for detail, and a surprisingly hopeful and inspiring journey of a woman coming into her own as an artist.

In the end, WITH OR WITHOUT YOU is all about timing. Leavitt asks us to consider who we are at every moment and who we love at the same time --- and how those facts may change with time, coming of age or even a blip, like falling for an old friend. This is an unflinchingly raw and honest novel, but it is also propulsive and suspenseful. The characters are so wholly realized and developed that they seem to move on their own, with Leavitt simply pulling the strings above them. She is a brave and risk-taking author, and WITH OR WITHOUT YOU is a perfect picture of what she can do when left with a spark of inspiration and a gripping premise.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on August 7, 2020

With or Without You
by Caroline Leavitt

  • Publication Date: August 4, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books
  • ISBN-10: 1616207795
  • ISBN-13: 9781616207793