Stella and Simon are starting to run into problems. An up-and-coming rock musician when they first met, Simon has been clinging to dreams of fame, and now that his band might finally be on the brink again, he wants to go on the road, leaving Stella behind. But when she falls into a coma on the eve of his departure, he has to make a choice between stardom and his wife. When she wakes a different person, with an incredible artistic talent of her own, the two of them must examine what it is that they really want.
... a poignant, instantly compelling novel about love, change and the power of timing ... far more perfectly paced than this review makes it seem. Leavitt layers every page with suspense and potential --- both for celebration and devastation --- and measures them out in equal parts, letting the narrative ebb and flow in ways that are both comfortably predictable and jump-out-of-your-chair shocking. This is a deeply moving novel, and the way that Leavitt plays with fate, the shifting of time and her own characters’ growth drives the emotion home to make it all the more intimate and personal ... Although Stella is technically the main character, it is Simon who experiences the most growth and has the most satisfying story arc. Leavitt allows him to surprise and upend readers’ and his own expectations at nearly every turn, while still keeping his character grounded and believable ... This is an unflinchingly raw and honest novel, but it is also propulsive and suspenseful. The characters are so wholly realized and developed that they seem to move on their own, with Leavitt simply pulling the strings above them. She is a brave and risk-taking author, and With or Without You is a perfect picture of what she can do when left with a spark of inspiration and a gripping premise.
... an enjoyable, reliable beach read. That’s a compliment, not a slam. Beach read is shorthand for an absorbing page-turner you can hardly bring yourself to put down. So what if, two months and a dozen books later, maybe you only recall its outline — and that you really liked it? You'd prefer to read Proust all the time? ... Leavitt has a happy knack for making an unusual circumstance believable and her characters flawed, which is to say, they quickly become people we care about ... A brief pause here to observe that, six months ago, I would have rolled my eyes at this plot device. Too much, I would have said. Just not believable. Oh, the difference a global pandemic makes. The book and real life have flipped places. Falling into a coma isn’t that unusual. (It happened to the author in real life.) All sorts of medical emergencies can trigger one. What we’re living through today is what isn’t believable. Being scared to go grocery shopping, not being able to tell a bank robber from a dental hygienist, and that fellow in the White House suggesting we all might benefit from drinking bleach or sleeping with a UV light down our gullets ... As for the book’s conclusion, enough to say, it’s sufficiently satisfying. Even though we see it coming, it doesn’t feel manipulative, which is a serious skill. In fact, I can stretch enough to say With or Without You has a happy ending ... We need those right now.
In the hands of another writer, like Amy Sohn or Emma Straub, these bougie New York types might have been subject to a touch of satire. But Leavitt is not an ironist. She takes her characters and their troubles very seriously, more like Celeste Ng or Joshua Henkin. But there’s also a splash of near-magical realism, when Stella returns from her coma with a gift of creativity and insight that verges on the superhuman. A little touch of Alice Hoffman or Elizabeth Berg, you could say ... What I like best about Leavitt — her signature, perhaps — is her fearlessness with plot. I’ll take a good coma story with a miracle recovery anytime.