Zen & Xander Undone

Zen & Xander Undone by Amy Kathleen Ryan

Zen and Xander are sisters who lost their mother a year ago.  In his grief, their father removed himself from their lives, living in the basement and rarely talking to them.  Each sister coped with the loss differently.  Zen, narrator of the book, immersed herself even more in martial arts.  Xander started more and more risky behaviors, coming home drunk or high with questionable guys.  Zen found great pleasure in kicking one of those guys in the head, though it injured her back.  It certainly did feel good though.  As the two girls drift further apart, a mystery brings them back together.  They discover that their mother left a valuable statue to a man they have never heard of.  Now the two of them have to decide whether to solve the mystery or return to their grief apart.

A beautiful depiction of sisters who are best friends but very different from one another, this book also explores grief with an openness that is breathtaking.  I particularly appreciated the intelligence of both of the sisters, both of them bright and filled with humor, caustic at times.  Their complex relationship was depicted in a realistic way, never straying too far from the core of sisterhood that held them together. 

Xander is a particularly complex character, drowning her grief in booze and drugs and throwing in a lot of risk at the same time.  She is difficult to like, until you realize that you are seeing her only in small glimpses.  Otherwise her behavior is shielding her from the reader.  In the end, she is what makes the book gritty and realistic.  She is the barbed truth of grief and coping.

Ryan’s writing is impeccable with a great ear for dialogue, a modern style without relying on any branding to keep it current, and a genuine appreciation for teens.  She manages not to be didactic about grief at all, allowing both girls to find their own way not as examples for others but as individuals.  Both sisters move through the loss of their mother in well rendered ways, even their mistakes making great sense. 

A humor-filled book with great depth, this reads like John Green with girls thanks to the smart sisters.  Appropriate for ages 15-18.

Reviewed from library copy.

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