Published by Scholastic Press on May 31, 2016
Genres: YA, YA Contemporary
Source: YA Books Central
A gorgeously written, witty, and poignant YA novel, about a girl who must forge her own path in the wake of a crumbling relationship.
Josie Little has been looking forward to moving halfway across the country to attend Brookwood Academy, a prestigious boarding school, with her girlfriend, Annette, for ages. But underneath Brookwood's picture-perfect image lies a crippling sense of elitism that begins to tear the girls apart from the moment they arrive.
While Josie struggles to navigate her new life, Annette seems to fit in perfectly. Yet that acceptance comes with more than a few strings. And consequently, Annette insists on keeping their relationship a secret.
At first, Josie agrees. But as Annette pushes her further and further away, Josie grows closer to Penn, a boy whose friendship and romantic feelings for her tangle her already-unraveling relationship. When Annette's need for approval sets her on a devastating course for self-destruction, Josie isn't sure she can save her this time -- or if Annette even wants her to try.
Diversity Rating: 2 – It’s a Start!
QUILTBAG: 4 (Annette and Josie are lesbians and so is an adult in the book)
Disability: 1 (Annette’s mom is a literal raging alcoholic)
Remember a while back when Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy inspired fury from readers who thought it would engage in bi erasure or lesbian erasure based on its original jacket copy? Yeah, me too, but I stayed out of it. From the sound of reviews, the book was actually very good and didn’t commit either crime in a story about a girl questioning her sexual identity. While reading Without Annette, I described it as “Ramona Blue in boarding school” and kinda regret it because that’s not the case at all. Oops? Still a good book, though.
It’s honestly easier to begin with what readers won’t get from Without Annette so they can adjust their expectations. If they want a happy ending for Annette and Josie and/or a bisexual narrator, they aren’t going to find what they’re looking for. I’d even say the book is as sad as the cover looks: pretty darn sad. Without Annette is focused on the sad reality of how two people in a relationship can grow apart from one another, especially when surrounded by new people in a new place.
Josie is entirely comfortable in her identity as a lesbian girl, which is nice even in a book that’s about the slow, unstoppable decay of her relationship with her first love/best friend Annette. Though her friend Penn’s confession of feelings for her shake Josie up a bit, is entirely certain of her identity. If you’ve ever been confessed to by someone whose gender you aren’t attracted to, you’ll relate to Josie!
But there’s still so much more the book is about! Ultimately, it’s about how Josie grows–wait for it–without Annette as well as the friendships she makes at her fancy new boarding school with people like her roommate Roxanne, Penn, and some of Penn’s other guy friends. Coming from a small Minnesota town where she and Annette were pretty much the only queer girls, so much of her life has been tied to Annette that Josie is bereft of her sense of self once Annette drifts toward a group of popular girls and decides she and Josie have to hide their relationship.
So yes, Josie grows into a new person–and so does Annette as she enters a downward spiral that sees her drink to excess just like her abusive mother and become bulimic. If seeing Josie rise up as Annette falls isn’t enough to make you sad, dorm mother hen Lola No comforting Josie toward the end of the book is sure to make you cry.
Without Annette is a strong novel on its own merits, but it might have been further strengthened if made a dual POV book split by Josie and Annette. Annette’s head is an impenetrable place from Josie’s point of view. To see Annette’s downward spiral and experience her complicated feelings for Josie from her own point of view might have turned this heart-wrenching book into one that actually tore your heart from your chest.
Additionally, more page time and development for Annette, Becca, and their group of Soleets (essentially the popular crowd) was necessary. One character named Marina offers tantalizing tidbits about her difficult life situation, but we get more about her life than we get of her. If it meant getting more complex characters, I’d happily sacrifice the book’s mystery subplot regarding a shrunken head and a dead kid from decades ago!
Without Annette takes a boatload of difficult emotions and makes them easily digestible. Though set in a boarding school for high school students, teens soon to start or newly in college away from home will also relate to Josie’s struggle to define herself. Having a book like this my freshman year of college could have done so much to help me settle in and change my experience!