A World without You by Beth Revis
I finished A World Without You by Beth Revis almost a month ago. It’s strange, but I found myself waiting to put words to how I felt about this book. It seemed like a monumental read for me, and a part of me didn’t want to face those intense emotions.
Immediately upon finishing the book, I gushed on Twitter—as I so often do—and eventually found myself private messaging with the author back and forth. Side note: I will always be grateful that Twitter fills the gap between author and reader.
A World Without You is a story about a boy named Bo who believes he can travel through time. He has always seen time displayed tangibly in front of him, and he eventually finds himself at Berkshire Academy, which he describes as a school for kids with superpowers learning how to control their powers and function in a world that views the students as outsiders.
I think it’s important to note that while it reads like sci-fi, this is a contemporary about mental illness—and it’s one of the most creatively accurate, in-depth pictures of mental illness from the inside looking out, as well as self-delusion, fear, guilt, and loss. I think my favorite description of this book is that it’s an “astonishing shape-shifter of a tale.” This is the first book I’ve ever read that confronts the stigma of mental illness and prejudice head on, leading the reader on a slow journey of the depths of psychosis and just how confusing it can be for people.
The book begins with the funeral of a young girl named Sofia who had the superpower of invisibility whom Bo loved. Bo believes Sofia isn’t really dead but that she’s lost in a different timeline—and that it’s all his fault that she’s stuck. The book unravels Bo’s desperate journey to try and get Sofia back while other obstacles intervene.
What was most surprising to me about A World Without You was the piercingly accurate portrayal of family dysfunction and the strain of mental illness when it comes to familial relationships. The book switches from the point of view of Bo to his sister, Phoebe, and I honestly believe this was the main reason I loved this book so much.
Bo is an unreliable narrator, but as readers, we don’t realize this right away. Phoebe’s perspective is sobering and poignant, and I related to it more than I can really say. It was like an arrow to the heart reading about her relationship with Bo and the rest of her family.
The best part about my reading experience was reading the handwritten annotations by Beth Revis that were included in my book from Quarterly. She shared small but beautifully intimate details about her thoughts, inspirations, or memories as she was writing her book. I related to so many of her notes, and even though she was not basing Phoebe’s character off of her own real-life experiences, it really helped me see the complex layers of Bo’s sister.
I loved all of the characters at Berkshire; they gave me Girl Interrupted vibes, especially toward the end of the novel. Gwen’s superpower to create fire in her hands and Harold’s ability to talk to ghosts—as well as our perceptions of Ryan throughout the novel—were all fascinating and heartbreaking. As a reader, you root for all of them. Empathy is the heart of this story.
Even with the dark subject matter and devastating storyline, hope prevails from the struggle. I found the ending to be brilliant, realistic, and honestly perfect, especially when it could have ended so many ways. Revis isn’t dismissive about recovery, but she doesn’t leave readers in despair, either.
I loved this book for personal reasons, and it’s hard to say whether I would have loved it if I didn’t feel such a fierce connection with Phoebe. I believe I would have, but I understand why it was too much for other readers at times. You have to be brave to read this book, because Beth Revis was brave in writing it, and Bo and Phoebe are brave, too. There’s a quiet strength and resilience to this story that made me weep, and I hope you treasure it, too.