Weekly Reads: I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

So thanks to less commuting this week, I only have one book to report on today for Weekly Reads. Happily, it was a good one: I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson.

This year, I’ve picked up young adult books with great reviews mostly to be disappointed again and again. (Maybe by the end of the year, I’ll have an idea of which reviewers to completely not trust. That’d be a nice book-marathon side effect.) So whenever the hype turns out to be meaningful, it’s a pleasant surprise. Corny as it is (and I think a little bit of corniness suits this book just fine), I’ll Give You the Sun provides a lot of light.

So I’m going to start with one major critique of this book: the ending is wrapped up in bows over the course of a chapter, which always feels forced to me even if I crave it. I understand the impulse and direction here, because the book for the most part is gut-wrenching, and resolution is sweet relief. But I wish the pacing of it had been better, or perhaps not quite so tidy across all threads.

That’s my nod to foregoing the compliment sandwich—I love that one of the protagonists, Jude, brings up this critiquing method in the book, saying that “in between, people say the terrible things they really think.” (I’ve done workshopping and yeah, I know that feeling.) Essentially: I’ll Give You the Sun is a story about grief, filtered through art and superstition and spread across time. The narrators are twins, Noah and Jude; Noah tells the story from its beginning, when the two are 13, while Jude picks it up from when they’re 16. The two alternate perspectives, so it’s only about twenty pages of not-really-spoiler to say that the person they’re grieving is their mother, a larger-than-life figure riddled with everyday superpowers and mysteries and tragic flaws—not unlike the twins themselves.

Noah tells the story of the splinters in his family life up until losing his mother when everyone needs her most; his narration is riddled with imaginative descriptions bordering on the hallucinatory and the portraits he paints in “the invisible museum” in his mind. Jude is haunted by her mother’s loss and lives her life carefully according to all her also-departed grandmother’s superstitions, narrating through dialogue with Grandma’s ghost, tidbits of folk wisdom from Grandma’s “bible,” and through deepset not-okayness. Both are imprisoned by the guilt they feel about the loss of their mother and the things they’ve done to hurt each other, and both need catharsis through the truth, romance, and art to find their way to who they are.

Given that, though, I will say this book probably isn’t for everyone. It’s fundamentally romantic—not in terms of being a romance as in a romantic relationship developing (although that happens), but because it allows for cathartic art and (possible) destiny and everyday magic and adventure to overthrow the shackles of grief and fear. So even though this book is a lot about the faults and cracks in people—the ways they lie to and lash out at one another, the darkness they find in themselves, especially in times of fear or sadness—it’s uplifting and hopeful. It’s very whimsical—maybe too whimsical for some, given how very quirky both the narrators are. And I think part of the ability to relate to it probably comes from a place of having an “ecstatic impulse”—the deep need to create something that expresses feelings you can’t unearth in another way; a feeling of being taken over by imagination and a kind of wildness.

I think, though, that it would be difficult for anyone not to be taken in by the vivid descriptions and raw emotions in this book. (A note: it’s written in present tense, which felt natural despite the lack of “action” in the book; it suited the in-the-moment type impressions and feelings it conveys.) I’ll Give You the Sun is wonderfully imagined and full of vulnerability. I’m not a particularly visual reader, but even I couldn’t help but envision Noah’s portraits or the giants Jude’s mentor had created out of stone. And even if you’re not someone who finds themselves through some form of art, if you’re the type to read a book, then I feel like those images and the places they come from for the characters will grab you and make you feel something.

The way this book ties together almost too neatly, both in terms of its ending and how the characters fit together and ebb and flow as “destined,” is a little troubling to me—I don’t think the book would function the way it did without some of these threads weaving, but I could’ve done with a few structural changes to make it feel more natural and less storybook. (The father character has some lovely moments, for example, but gets a pretty short end of the stick in terms of his arc feeling clunky. And while a parrot as a device is fun, the character Heather feels like she could do with being at least a bit of a person.)

Overall, though, I was absorbed by the twins and their overactive imaginations, and I wanted very badly for them to find their way back to each other and to find a way through grief. So this book will keep a place on my shelf, and I think a lot of readers would like it.

Maybe some weeks, I read so many books because I’m not sure I’ve reached something I like yet. Weeks like this one are easier. Thanks for tuning in, and I’ll catch you next time, rain or shine. (Let’s be real, it’s mostly rain. But it’s always nice when some of the books you read aren’t disappointing.)


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