Jandy Nelson’s latest contemporary YA novel, I’ll Give You the Sun, was recommended (and gifted, thank you!) to me by a trusted friend, and let me tell you: she was right. Although I’m getting to this one a little late (I’ll Give You the Sun was on last month’s TBR, not to mention that it’s been 3 years since it’s publication), this is still an important story for many reasons.
About the book: Noah and Jude are twins. They don’t look much alike, but they (sometimes) share a close relationship and (always) have a lot of love for each other. When they’re thrust into life and love with the untimely death of their mother and problems in their other relationships, they both retreat into themselves with very different results outwardly. They (mostly) stop speaking to each other when admissions into art school reveal that one of them has been accepted and the other has not. In the two years that follow, as one of them tries to embrace their artistic side and the other tries to abandon theirs, Noah and Jude (completely) stop looking for boyfriends due to hurt they’ve been through in the past. Jude’s boy boycott doesn’t stop her from meeting someone irresistible though, someone with an odd connection to her family’s history. Noah’s refusal to admit to anyone that he’s gay is really the only hindrance he needs to prevent finding someone he can happy with. Fate, however, is conspiring to bring together all the important people in their lives in a way that pushes Noah and Jude back together–the only question left is to wonder whether admitting their secrets at long last will reunite the family or force it permanently apart.
While I wouldn’t call this a sad book because its ending and many messages are positive ones, this book is nevertheless sad all the way through. The only way for these characters to overcome their difficulties so powerfully is to be hit over and over again with all the bad things that could possibly happen first. Then, once they’ve hit the absolute bottom, they can begin to rise back up to the top and live again. This is a story about coping with grief and betrayal and simple unfairness, but it presents those aspects directly before showing how the characters endeavor to find their way through the darkness. It isn’t the sort of book that makes me cry, but it definitely has a lot of sorrowful tension at heart.
“What is bad for the heart is good for art.”
About the characters: I liked Noah almost immediately, but I never quite came around to liking Jude. I didn’t like her insta-love, although I did like the character she fell in love with. For all of Jude’s and her mother’s claims that she’s the strong one of the twins, she changes her mind and gives in to things quite easily. She’s constantly thinking, “this boy is bad news, I should stay away from him,” and then even when she’s hurt by him makes no effort whatsoever to do so. It sometimes takes her years to own up to things. I enjoyed her hogwash bible, but otherwise Jude felt like a very forced character to me. She’s there to talk too much when something needs to be said, or to throw a wrench in the works when the story needs a boost of drama, and thus she feels more like a plot device than a compelling character. Her thoughts and actions made her seem very young, while Noah seemed older than his age.
“We were all heading for each other on a collision course, no matter what. Maybe some people are just meant to be in the same story.”
I found the convergence of the four main characters in this novel very… coincidental. The thing about coincidence is that when it crops up in real life, it seems incredible because it feels like there’s no way such clear connections could be random, and yet they must be, and that makes them magical. In books, coincidence feels like cheating. It makes me skeptical. It feels like the author’s pulling strings to bring all the important people together at just the right moment. It makes the story predictable. It makes the plot feel cheap.
My least favorite part of this book, though, was that it does that thing where the whole conflict arises from people keeping secrets from each other for no real reason other than that they’re uncomfortable telling the truth. If Noah and Jude had been honest with each other from the beginning, this story wouldn’t exist. They would have been saved literally years of misery and isolation. The big reveal at the end, the climax of secret-sharing: that could’ve happened at any other point in the story and the main tension would’ve just floated away. The worst part is that the only thing holding them back is believing that telling the truth will make things miserable, when everyone is already completely miserable. There’s nothing to lose. That makes the tension feel cheap.
And yet…I loved this book. I couldn’t put it down. I loved the way that parts of it (especially Noah’s sections) felt like the written version of how a graphic novel would look. It was so easy to envision him in technicolor, with thought bubbles and cute cartoon-y images of mountains moving and bullies growing twenty feet tall and a stare physically crushing its victim. Noah is so vivid and visual that way, overlaying his imagination over the real world. Jude, with all her darkness and invisibility, made a nice contrast, despite making me cringe almost every time she opened her mouth. Seeing how these twins could be so close even though they were competing for love and attention was so compelling, and really emphasized in a way that YA often seems to fail to do that parents don’t always know what they’re doing, or what’s best, or how to be what their kids need. These parents are trying, and yet we see that even our elders are fallible and we have to forgive them; they’re only human, just like their kids are only human. The emotions of this book felt more real than any other part of it, and they definitely hit their mark.
My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I’m so glad I read this book, and yet… I’m hesitant to read Nelson’s other book, The Sky is Everywhere. I’m afraid I’ll have issues with the tactics of the writing again, and I’m also afraid that it’s about a simple love triangle. Is it more than that? Because while I was unhappy with the way the plot was presented in I’ll Give You the Sun at some points, I was engrossed throughout with the commentary on love and grief and friendship and family. My first instinct always upon finishing a good book is to check out what else I can read by the same author or under the same topic, but I just can’t decide if that’s the way to go here. Help!
- Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places is another great YA read with some great messages about dealing with grief and staying true to your heart even after everything has changed.
- E. Lockart’s We Were Liars is also a good choice for I’ll Give You the Sun fans. It has the same sort of dual chronology, some hard topics for substance mixed in with the good moments, and one big lie that turns the main character’s world upside down.
What’s next: I’m currently reaching the end of Lev Grossman’s The Magician King. I read the first book in his trilogy last month, The Magicians, and have been dying to find out what happens next. Let me tell you, the sequel does not disappoint. This has been a great shift from all the contemporary YA I’ve been reading lately (Who even am I? What’s changed? Why am I reading so much contemporary YA?), so it’s been an all-around good experience and I can’t wait to tell you more about the magical realm of Fillory and Quentin’s crazy quests for happiness.
Do you like to read all of an author’s books after enjoying one, or do you stick with the one and move on? When it’s not a series, how do you decide whether or not to keep reading the same author’s books?
The Literary Elephant