Zen and Xander Undone


Zen and Xander Vogel are sisters—truly, madly, deeply sisters and this is their last summer together before Xander goes away to college.

The "good girl"
Has a black belt in karate and maybe a crush on the boy next door

Math genius
Spiraling out of control and deliberately ignoring the boy next door

This summer they are...
Learning to survive without their mother
Dealing with a father who's retreated to the basement
Solving a mystery from their mother's past
And meeting some boys that include the good the bad and the ugly

By summer's end, Zen and Xander will never be the same.

Barnes & Noble

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Hardcover, May 2010, ISBN: 978-0547062488
Paperback, April 2011, ISBN: 978-0547550305


"Before Zen and Xander's mom Marie died, she Made Important Arrangements. The girls receive loving, chatty, spookily appropriate advice-filled letters from her on important dates, and she pre-purchased a perfect prom dress for normally dance-eschewing Zen. Sadly and realistically, no amount of careful planning could prevent Zen, Xander and their dad, James, from losing themselves in grief, so one year after Marie's funeral, James still wallows in the basement, Zen's barely controlled anger finds a dangerous outlet in her black-belt skills and Xander loses herself in drink, drugs and sex. Burning curiosity (tinged with dread) about their mother's long-ago relationship with a graduate-school professor drags the girls out of their funk and pushes them to see Marie as a fully three-dimensional person: loving, brilliant, flawed and forgiven. As their view of Marie develops, so does their understanding of themselves without her, rendering what could be clichéd and dull instead touching, urgent and involving. Zen's frank narration—full of longing and hard-won insight—draws readers in and won't let go."
   —Kirkus Reviews (STARRED REVIEW)

"When their mother dies of cancer, sisters Zen (Athena) and Xander (Alexandra) find their world unraveling. Their depressed dad descends to the basement; Xander, always a risk taker, spirals into drugs, alcohol, and questionable companions; Zen, the steady one, shocks herself by using her black belt karate skills to deck Xander's menacing date. Unsettlingly, on each important occasion, letters arrive from their mother, written before her death and delivered by an unknown person. Xander talks Zen into stealing their mother's file from her lawyer to learn who the messenger could be. Instead, they find something that rocks their world: a note from an unknown man acknowledging the bequest of a valuable bird figurine from their mother's collection. Why would he write that he "loved her very much"? Could their mom, who seemed so devoted to her family, have had an affair? Impulsively the sisters set out on a road trip to locate and talk to him. What they learn is reassuring and confounding in equal measure.
Zen's first-person, present-tense narrative immediately draws in the reader. She cares deeply for her brilliant, if erratic, sibling and makes us care, too. Secondary characters are vividly portrayed, from their grandmother, "the Droning Crone," to Zen's first boyfriend, Paul, who comfortably discusses whether there is a just God. Ryan manages to make their absent mother (with whom Zen has lengthy, internal conversations) a very real, complex character. Literate, believable, funny, and sometimes profound, this book has broad appeal."
   —Kathleen Beck, VOYA

"Although the "dead mother" plot has been done and done again, Ryan's approach asks not "How do we mourn?" but "Who are we now?" Following their mother's death, sisters Athena (Zen) and Alexandra (Xander) head off in different, self-destructive directions. Xander acts out with dangerous guys and drugs, while Zen focuses on karate and uses Xander's guys as punching bags, which severely injures her back. Their mother left a series of letters and gifts with a secret accomplice who delivers them to the girls on significant occasions in this first year after her death. Although the sisters crave and treasure these communiqués from the dead, it is clear that wounds are reopened with each letter. Slowly, they reacquaint themselves with old friends and find a future with new ones as they decipher who they are and what holds their family together without their mother. Vivid emotions and unexpected events keep the reader engaged as the characters grow and find a way back to themselves."
   —Heather Booth, Booklist

"Zen and Xander have always been opposites; flashy Xander is brilliant in school, while Zen is more laid back and focused on studying martial arts. When their mother dies, they grieve in different ways. Their father disappears into his misery, Xander gets involved with a crowd that deals in drugs and alcohol, and Zen finds herself resorting to violence as the first solution to dangerous situations. When she gets injured and can no longer teach karate until she has healed in both body and spirit, she struggles with her feelings of helplessness and her inability to get through her sister's ever more hazardous attitude. It only makes things worse when the girls uncover a secret about their mother that has them wondering if they ever really knew her. Zen's narration gives both her actions and her emotions a feeling of immediacy and closeness. Though the ending leaves some questions about Zen's future unanswered, both Xander and the girls' father go through dramatic changes, which Zen chronicles with keen insight. The themes of the negative influences of drugs and alcohol never overpower the story; instead, the focus remains tightly on two young women at a sensitive time in their lives."
   —School Library Journal