WITH OR WITHOUT YOU
New York Times bestselling author Caroline Leavitt writes novels that expertly explore the struggles and conflicts that people face in their search for happiness. For the characters in With or Without You, it seems at first that such happiness can come only at someone else’s expense. Stella is a nurse who has long suppressed her own needs and desires to nurture the dreams of her partner, Simon, the bass player for a rock band that has started to lose its edge. But when Stella gets unexpectedly ill and falls into a coma just as Simon is preparing to fly with his band to Los Angeles for a gig that could revive his career,
New York Times bestselling author Caroline Leavitt writes novels that expertly explore the struggles and conflicts that people face in their search for happiness. For the characters in With or Without You, it seems at first that such happiness can come only at someone else’s expense. Stella is a nurse who has long suppressed her own needs and desires to nurture the dreams of her partner, Simon, the bass player for a rock band that has started to lose its edge. But when Stella gets unexpectedly ill and falls into a coma just as Simon is preparing to fly with his band to Los Angeles for a gig that could revive his career, Simon must learn the meaning of sacrifice, while Stella’s best friend, Libby, a doctor who treats Stella, must also make a difficult choice as the coma wears on.
When Stella at last awakes from her two-month sleep, she emerges into a striking new reality where Simon and Libby have formed an intense bond, and where she discovers that she has acquired a startling artistic talent of her own: the ability to draw portraits of people in which she captures their innermost feelings and desires. Stella’s whole identity, but also her role in her relationships, has been scrambled, and she has the chance to form a new life, one she hadn’t even realized she wanted.
A story of love, loyalty, loss, and resilience, With or Without You is a page-turner that asks the question, What do we owe the other people in our lives, and when does the cost become too great?
- August 2020
- 288 Pages
“What if Snow White woke up and decided she didn’t much like Prince Charming? Something like that happens in Leavitt’s latest novel . . . One character’s coma is only the first surprise in this satisfying story of middle-aged love.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“Leavitt’s seamless writing easily carries readers through the compelling story . . . Leavitt’s fans and readers of domestic drama will be thrilled.” —Booklist
“A wonderful novel about life as mess and disappointment, life as catastrophe and regret, but also life as transformation and resilience. Leavitt’s characters are great company, and watching them find a way forward in their suddenly altered world is a joy. Deeply engaging, tense but hopeful, and completely recommended.” —Karen Joy Fowler, author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
“With or Without You is a compulsively readable novel of artistic ambition and the various betrayals lovers and friends both endure and inflict on each other. It also asks fascinating questions about the stability of the self and our capacity—perhaps even our secret desire?—to reinvent ourselves. Caroline Leavitt is a born storyteller, and this is one knockout of a story.” —Christopher Castellani, author of Leading Men
“Caroline Leavitt has accomplished in With or Without You the hardest but most profound task of the novelist: she makes us not only understand but care about characters as flawed as ourselves. Stella, Simon, and Libby straddle the ravine between hip urbanity and soulful vulnerability—each achieving a redemption that gives us hope that we might too.” —Lisa Gornick, author of The Peacock Feast
1. Caroline Leavitt’s novel is really about how no one and nothing stays the same, and that these changes can happen in a heartbeat. Even if Stella had not fallen into coma, she would have changed. Even if Simon had not had to give up his gig, things would have changed. Since changes in relationships are almost inevitable, how do you think the dynamics between Stella and Simon would have altered even if she had not ended up in coma and emerged as a different person? Do you think the relationship would have endured? Why or why not?
2. Leavitt, who was once in a coma, did a great deal of research on personality change of people after coma. She learned that, like her, many coma survivors do not suffer brain damage or a regular personality change, but in some cases, brains really do rewire and people come out of coma with incredible new talents. Some survivors can speak fluent languages they never knew before; some can paint or are violinist virtuosos. Others, like Stella, come out of coma with not only an altered personality but also with a remarkable new talent and an ability to draw on heretofore unknown inner strength. How does knowing this science change your own views about the human brain and how much of it we don’t really understand? How does this scientific knowledge affect what you think of as your own limitations?
3. The idea of home plays a big part in With or Without You. Simon hates his parents’ Woodstock summer home because it was the scene of his humiliation and failure as a kid trying to be a musician, but to his dismay, Stella loves it. Do you think that place really matters, that a home can really have energy and personality, or do you think a house is just a house and what we make of it?
4. Leavitt has always said she likes novels that have “never-ending stories”—where the novel ends but you still have questions about what is going to happen to the characters. Those unfinished endings involve Stella, Simon, and Libby. What do you personally imagine might happen to each of them? What do you hope will happen?
5. There are two sections of the novel in which we hear from Stella while she is in coma. Obviously, Leavitt is drawing on personal experience and attempting to give the reader a sense of what that experience was like. Do you find these trips into the mind of a coma victim to be realistic? Do you feel that they give the novel—and Stella as a character—greater depth? Why or why not?
6. For Simon, success as a musician and recognition of his ability seems to be a major driving force, while Stella seems to have no interests beyond her work, the possibility of having a child, and stability in her relationship. Why do you think the relationship has lasted as long as it has? Is it a case of “opposites attract,” or do you think it was doomed? Why?
7. For Leavitt, the past is often the prologue, containing wounds that have to be healed for people to become whole. Libby blames herself for someone’s death; Simon struggles under his father’s disapproval; Stella feels her parents loved each other more than they ever loved her. How do you think these “wounds” influence their actions, both with each other as well as in the directions their lives have taken?
8. A great deal of With or Without You is about what we are willing to do for the ones we love, and the ones who love us—and what the cost might be. Would there ever be a limit for you, when giving becomes too much?
9. Leavitt ends the book with these sentences: Any moment something amazing can happen. Some readers might find this strange, considering the catastrophes that occur in the book. What do you think Leavitt is really trying to say about life in the light of tragedy?
10. How do you feel about the decisions Stella made at the end of the story? Do you think she used the young writer, or was it a matter of their using each other? Likewise, did she use Simon? How does the answer you feel strongest about affect how you feel about Stella as a character?
Stella maps out time by noise, music, scent, and heat.
The morning sun on her body, the coolness of night, sometimes the rough wash of a cloth over her body. Everything looks and feels different now. Sounds are sharper. She sees colors behind her lids, but when she tries to focus, tastes flood her mouth. Apples. Roast beef. Once, strawberry ice cream, just out of nowhere, like a kind of wonderful surprise. Her senses are all mixed up and she keeps thinking, More. Please, more, more, more. The surprise of it makes her feel more alive. It’s something new, something positive, so surely it means things are changing. Someone touches her hand and she sees a flash of turquoise. Someone says something and she smells oranges, making her mouth water.
Stella shivers at a kiss on her hand. She knows it’s Simon’s, and though she can’t see him right now, she feels like a light has been switched on. His lips seem to blend right into her skin, heat coursing through her body like a stream. “It’s time for you to wake up, honey,” she hears him say, but she doesn’t really understand what he means, except for the word honey, but in his mouth, it sounds sad rather than loving, and that bothers her.
She hears people yelling at her, calling Stella, Stella, Stella, her name like the clang of a bell. She hears a banging noise so close to her face that she would flinch back if she could. She hears Simon, and sometimes Libby, too. Libby. Her friend Libby. She knows when Libby is there because she can smell her, like coconut, like a weird float of red and blue that has a scent all its own. She can feel her stirring the air.
She shimmers above herself. Her memories are hazy. They seem like a book she had read one too many times, but a book she had loved. Who was that Stella? What was on her next page?
“Simon,” she hears, and she recognizes Libby’s voice, and a flood of happiness washes over her. Libby, she tries to say. Libby, my friend!
“The drive,” Libby says. “That was nice.”
What drive? Stella thinks.
“I know a place that has the best pizza,” Simon says. There’s a funny silence and Stella rides it like a wave, coming down with a bounce. “I sometimes go there when I’m done with the hospital. You should eat, too. Something other than that awful hospital food.”
Stella listens in wonder. She remembers how much Libby had disapproved of Simon, how she didn’t think he was good enough for Stella. Do Simon and Libby like each other now? Stella hopes so because she loves them both, but still there’s a flare of jealousy zigzagging through her stomach. They can like each other, she tells herself. It’s all right.
“Stella,” she hears him say now. She tries to let him know, sending out thoughts that have sound attached, but he doesn’t say anything more to her, so she has to assume that he’s oblivious. He cries, but there’s nothing she can do about it, except think, meanly, Well, why didn’t you cry before? “Come back,” he says. “Please come back.”
Simon never gives up hope. She knows this about him. He always thought he was going to go right to the top in music and stay there. He thought he would be the next Dylan, that his band would be the next Pearl Jam, that the songs he uploads on the band’s website would go viral. And at first it seemed possible. But then she saw how his audience was getting older, not younger, and that wasn’t a good sign, how the concert halls weren’t filling anymore, so the band had to play at fairgrounds, singing to drunks and kids who were only there to snag some weed. The band was background noise, a reason for another beer, another toke, but she didn’t say anything to Simon. She had always just hoped he would find his way, and fool that she was, she had hoped that his way might be her.
Light pours into her, warm as a shower, and she feels herself contract. “Oh, that’s good,” Libby says, and Stella wants to scream, I’m here, I’m here, don’t go away, I’m here.
The light gets brighter and she feels herself flinch again. “Come on, Stella,” Libby says, and Stella thinks, Oh, shut up. I’m doing the best I can. She read once about people who saw white lights when they died, but she never believed it. That was hokum, just the brain being starved of oxygen. The body trying to keep itself from reaching the edge of panic. The light flashes again, and her mind rolls over it like water over a stone. Is she dying? Is this all there is for her? Peggy Lee sang that, she remembers. Simon played the song for her. She needs Peggy Lee singing.
Simon comes closer. His sorrow is rich and fragrant. “She doesn’t know I’m here,” he says.
Yes. Yes, I do.
She had had lots of men in her life when she was in college, guys who wanted to be doctors, psychologists, electricians, but she had never loved any one of them enough to settle down with. Then, degree in hand, her career under way, she met Simon.
“We don’t know that,” Libby says, and her voice has something new in it that Stella can’t place. “Stella, wake up! Stella, wake up!” Libby says.
I would if I could.
Coma, she hears someone say, and something twists in her stomach. She had seen coma patients right here in the hospital. There was a single mother, and Stella still remembers her name: Doris Harper. Young and blonde and gorgeous, with a tiny diamond nose ring and a big smile. She came in all by herself to have her baby, and everything interested her, the labor pains that she said were like having a T. rex inside of her, the monitor, even the surgical gown that she fastened in the back with two glittery diaper pins. But something happened on the table. Her heart stopped. She went into a coma for two weeks, and when she came out of it, she didn’t ask about her baby, a burly little boy she had wanted to name Jake. She didn’t want to see him. “Why should I?” she said. “I’ll be gone again. I made the wrong decision. I want to go back.”
The doctors monitored Doris. The nurses put Jake in her arms, and she rocked him, sang to him, and kissed his little cheek. Everyone thought everything was going to be fine. But then Doris had gone home, with her baby, and two weeks later, roiling in postpartum depression, she killed herself and her baby went to Social Services.
You never knew how things were going to turn out.
“Coma,” Stella hears again, and then Libby’s soothing voice. “She’ll come out of it, Simon. You told me she was a fighter.” When, Stella thinks. When had Simon told Libby that?
Well, this state is nothing like coma. Not that she’s ever been in one before. Not that she would know. But this feels like nothing anyone who has come out of coma has told her. It’s nothing like anything she has ever studied. She can feel Libby and Simon moving about the room, and then suddenly, she is moving, too. Like a spirit.
She swirls about the hospital and sees and hears things she didn’t notice before. Is she hallucinating? she wonders. She rounds a corner, and if this is a hallucination, well, the details are all so right, so specific, right down to the hand lotion on the nurse’s cart, the stack of diapers on the bottom. Is this all some sort of vast cosmic joke, and is she the punch line? In her room again, Stella sees Madonna in a black lace bustier smoking a cigarette and grinning at her before she flies away.
Stella knows that there are specialists who work to bring people out of comas. But, really, who knows what works? A child’s puppy licking his face. A favorite perfume. A swish of velvet.
A kiss from someone you love.
In her bed again, Stella tries to think of what she knows about herself. She is here. She can sense things. Something is wrong. She loved Simon.
The past tense bothers her.
“Baby girl,” she hears, and she thinks, Mom, Mom, Mom again. She wants to reach for her, to burrow her face against her mother’s warm neck.
Something feels different. There’s been a seismic shift. Or a time loop, the past and present all entwined. Animals know when an earthquake is about to happen. People, too, sense things, and she feels herself floating up again, as if she is moving into the future. She can’t tell what’s in the future, though. All she knows is this bed, the smells of the sheets, and the senses around her.
Now she hears something crashing against her ears, and then she’s floating higher, up against this raging tide, and her ears hurt, and then her skin hurts, and then there is a blink of light before she falls back again, settled more deeply into the dark. She feels different now, new somehow. She wants to laugh out loud.
“Stella!” She hears her name and something sharp is poked under her nose. Cinnamon, she thinks. Or maybe table salt. She’s rising up again. Something is trying to get out of her body, and for a moment, it hurts. Pain. For a second, she feels as if her body is moving. Her hand. Just a twitch. That’s what it is. When was the last time she felt pain?
There is that blink of light again, growing stronger, pressing against her eyes like a thumb, and she opens them, and everything is so bright she can’t see for a minute. Her body, heavy and dense, falls back into the bed. “Glasses,” she says, and it is strange to hear her voice, hoarse and hollow and filled with fluid, but she means sunglasses, not the glass of water someone is handing her because it is all so bright, so new, and then she blinks and her vision clears a little, and there, standing at the foot of her bed, beautiful and strange, his whole body shimmering, is Simon, before she’s pulled back down, into the murk. “Simon,” she tries to say. “Simon.”
Where Did the Old You Go?
by Caroline Leavitt
I fell in love with my husband, Jeff, on our second date, after he told me about his favorite unchangeably-in-love couple, Jake and Abby. They’d been dazzlingly happy together for seventeen years. They didn’t crumple under life’s blows, but seemed to grow stronger, starting an antiques business when their editorial work dried up, raising kids and dogs and cats and vegetables, weathering illness and celebrating joys. When I finally met them, just on the cusp of Jeff and me marrying, I fell in love with them, too, making their relationship a model for ours.
Until Jake became someone else, in a way that can only be called cataclysmic, something that eventually haunted me into writing With or Without You.
Jake, who had always been amiable and low key, potbellied with a mop of hair, came home one day with twenty-pound weights. Abby thought nothing of it, until the weights multiplied and Jake began working out downstairs until three in the morning. His body changed dramatically: tightly muscled, he shaved his head, oiled his skin, and traded khaki for spandex. But his personality changed, too. He stopped reading anything except for bodybuilding magazines. He didn’t want to go to movies anymore or even take walks. Worse, his unconditional love acquired conditions. Why didn’t Abby work out? Why wasn’t she more social? Why did she always have to hang on him? “Talk to me,” she begged, “tell me what’s happened,” but instead, his silence grew stonier. When his greatest achievement became training for, entering, and winning a contest pulling an eighteen-wheeler by a rope held in his teeth, she no longer recognized him, and neither did anyone else. Abruptly, he left his marriage, his job, our friendship, and moved away without explanation. And none of us ever knew why.
Desperate to understand, I began to think more and more about the ways and whys that people in long relationships change. I popped “personality change” into Google and there, like a shock, was something personal: coma, a state I’d been in for over three weeks after the birth of my son. But while I hadn’t really changed, my research showed me how others coming out of coma often did, and in mind-blowing ways. A shy eighty-one-year-old man became a predatory sex maniac. People woke with brilliant new skills, taking to the stage as a concert pianist when before they couldn’t play “Chopsticks,” speaking perfect Mandarin, or showcasing an obsessive talent for painting. What would that be like, I wondered. How would you know who you really were? I knew I had to write about this kind of transformation and what it might do to a couple.
That’s when I saw the first scene of With or Without You: Stella and Simon, in their forties, arguing in their NYC apartment during a blizzard. Stella, a very practical nurse, wants to buy their apartment and have a child before it’s too late. Simon yearns for his one last chance at recapturing his rock-and-roll fame. There’s drinking and drugs and passing out. But in the morning, Simon wakes, and Stella is in a coma, and Simon’s last chance seems to have vanished. Plus, when Stella wakes, she has a new, unrestrained personality—and a new talent that eventually puts her in the spotlight that eludes Simon. The more I wrote, the more involved I became in their lives, which seemed so different from my own.
Until they weren’t. Until I had an identity change as startling as Stella’s.
Since I was five years old, part of my identity has been that I’m sick with asthma. My world was ERs, hospitals, inhalers, steroids, and nebulizers. Bullied in school for being sickly, I grew shy, shamed. Cold weather could decimate my lungs, but so could humid air, so I was a victim of weather. My clothes always had to have pockets for my arsenal of meds. I never talked about my asthma, but I did write about it in Pictures of You, which helped me come to terms with being a person with a chronic illness.
But then five years ago, I developed terrible new breathing problems no doctor seemed able to diagnose, let alone treat. I bounced from specialist to specialist for over a year, near hysterical with panic, until I was able to get an appointment at a renowned respiratory clinic. The doctor spent over two hours taking my history and giving me tests, and then announced, “You absolutely don’t have asthma. You never had asthma. It’s your meds and your anxiety that are giving you breathing issues. And you need to stop them immediately.”
I sat there, stunned, furious, and terrified. How had so many doctors been so wrong? What was it going to feel like being healthy? Going off my meds made me feel untethered, even more so when I discovered I didn’t need them. I started meditating and seeing a cognitive therapist to feel better. But who was I if I wasn’t sick, if I never had been? I gave that disconnected feeling, that exploration of self, to both Simon and Stella.
The more I wrote, the more I found I was writing myself into the story. Hey, it always happens. Like Simon, I had my own issues with identifying myself as a success, which could define or destroy you. I had had sudden fame in my twenties with my first novel, Meeting Rozzy Halfway, catapulting me into a limelight I loved. I was finally somebody, a star! But like Simon, my glow didn’t last. I bounced from publisher to publisher and none of my books did well. No one knew who I was anymore—including me. My ninth novel was rejected on contract as “not special enough” and I knew I could no longer call myself an author. But then, unexpectedly, I became a success again with Algonquin—a two-time New York Times bestseller!—but what did that mean? Success didn’t feel like the this-is-why-I-matter identity of my twenties anymore, but something very different. Success was now simply a river I traveled on, with twists, dams, broken places, and sometimes gorgeous islands to rest upon. It was a thing, but it wasn’t me.
Writing With or Without You made me think about personality change with a new kind of wonder. Does transformation ever stop? Can we control it? Every seven years or so, our bodies replace our cells. Could it be the same with who we are? I realize that the only thing any of us—including my characters—can know is that everything you thought you knew about yourself or others can derail. But unexpected transformation can also revive, burnishing new possibilities you never expected, and that new person you might become can actually turn out to be your truest self of all.