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WITH OR WITHOUT YOU by Caroline Leavitt

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to go to sleep and wake up as a different person… with a different personality, with memory loss, with new talents? That’s the premise of Caroline Leavitt’s latest novel, With Or Without You. Stella and Simon have been together a long time. He’s an already-peaked musician who’s been given one more shot at trying to revive his career, and she’s a nurse who’s frustrated that they are still childless and living in a small apartment in Manhattan. After Stella takes a prescription pill handed to her by Simon after they’ve had a fight, she ends up in a coma. When she wakes up a few months later, she’s very different – she has artistic skills she never had before, she no longer wants to be a nurse, and she does not feel connected to Simon the way she once did. With Or Without You explores the changes in their relationship brought on by her coma and how they each deal with them.

Why I picked it up: I’ve read and enjoyed other books by Leavitt (Cruel Beautiful World, Is This Tomorrow, Pictures of You) and thought the premise of With Or Without You was intriguing.

Unlike Leavitt’s earlier books, I had a hard time with With Or Without You. Again, the premise is interesting, but the storytelling was problematic. I thought Leavitt did a lot more telling than showing – explaining repeatedly how her characters were feeling rather than showing the reader through their actions. The dialogue felt unnatural, with whole swaths of serious relationship issues covered in a perfunctory conversation. I enjoyed the process of these characters identifying what was important to them and learning how to live in a way that felt true to who they were, but the relationships fell flat.

Leavitt actually lived through being in a coma, an experience she has written about before both autobiographically and through fiction. Perhaps the experience was too intensely personal and traumatic for her to serve as the context for her novel? In the end, getting through With Or Without You took me longer than it should have and I had a hard time feeling invested. Her earlier books, which deal a lot with love and loneliness, were more compelling.

Most reviews of With Or Without You are very positive, so please give it a read if the premise appeals to you. Or give one of Leavitt’s earlier novels a try instead.

With Or Without You was Book #45 of 2020.