In 2010, Amy Kathleen Ryan published Zen and Xander Undone, a young adult novel about a set of sisters, Zen and Xander, that primarily takes place during the summer before Xander leaves for college, not long after the girls’ mother has died. Because she knew she was dying, their mother made a series of arrangements that included Zen’s prom dress and letters full of bittersweet motherly advice for dates, graduation, and moving away. But the girls, of course, still grieve for their mother. Zen seems to mostly take out her grief aggressively—she has a black belt in shotokan and uses it to beat up her sisters’ dates. Xander, the older of the two, has a photographic memory and a prestigious scholarship that she is just about to lose due to all the drinking and drugs that she loses herself in. When the two girls tried to find out who their mother’s messenger might be, they end up on a journey to find out about the recipient of one of their mothers’ possessions, a man neither of them knows.
The book is told from the perspective of Zen (whose given name is Athena), and she opens with “My sister, Xander, causes a scandal practically everywhere she goes. Even funeral receptions, I now know. I’m the quiet one . . . I tried to go unseen, unnoticed.” The two are at their mother’s funeral, and Xander (given name, Alexandra) is drunk. When the girls hear their mother’s first posthumously delivered note, Xander runs out of the house, a trail of screamed obscenities in her wake. Zen stands quietly at first, then goes after her sister, and the two trade obscenities and hysterical laughter for the remainder of the wake. As Zen admits,”the scandal wasn’t all Xander’s.” It rarely is.
We’re fairly quickly, after that, introduced to the sort of thing that Xander does. She leaves home wearing clothes that are skimpy, clothes that have holes in all the right places, and when she has a guy bring her home who wants a little too much (and is beaten into submission by Zen), her guy-next-door-best-friend, Adam, berates the sisters for taking care of their problem on their own. They’re small, and they’re weak–and they’re girls. Now, I’m all for male chivalry and people–male and female–looking out for one another, but I’m glad that the girls dealt with the problem on their own terms, made Frank go away of their own volition, as there’s far too little of girls fending for themselves in novels.
And so we watch this journey, hear this journey, happen–two sisters finding out about life, about grief, and about their mother. We hear Zena’s internal conversations with her late mother and see Xander’s much more externalized expressions of grief. Neither girl is perfect—sometimes Zen’s sanctimoniousness is a bit too much to handle, and sometimes Xander is too close to a cliche. These are small flaws in the writing, but they don’t negate the value of a book that places so much emphasis on the relationship between sisters as they move from young adulthood to real adulthood.