Books: I’ll Give You the Sun

I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson was July’s selection for our book club at the library. I always wonder, when we get the next month’s book, whether I’ll like it. There has been a lot of variety in the books we’ve read over the past two years, and some have taken much more effort to finish than others. (One I just refused to read after the first twenty pages. As it happened that month’s meeting was cancelled anyway.)

I had left this one to read over the July 4th weekend, reasoning that I would have plenty of time to read and it would be easier to get through a book when I had fewer demands on my time. As it turned out, it was a very easy read, and I got interested enough in the characters that I somewhat reluctantly set it aside when the parade started. (With a son in the marching band, we had to get there way early. Naturally I had a book to read while we waited.)

The novel jumps back and forth, not only between the narrative voices of two teenage (fraternal) twins, Noah and Jude, but also in time. Noah’s chapters take place when they are 13 (then 14), Jude’s when they are 16. The switch in characters is only mildly distracting, but it took longer to get used to the jump in time as well.

On the whole I found I enjoyed Noah at 13 more than Jude at 16, though both could be annoying at times. I kept reminding myself, they’re teenagers. And they’re facing, not only the usual issues that teenagers generally do – school, peer pressure, boy/girl issues, trying to figure out who they are and not just who their families think they are/expect them to be – but also a strained (and eventually broken) relationship between their parents. (Of course, that’s become all too common also in today’s society.)

Both Noah and Jude are gifted artistically, though in different ways. I found myself reflecting, as I often do when novels describe breathtakingly beautiful works of art (whether visual or music), that it is probably far easier to describe characters creating or responding to works of art that go beyond what most of us have ever experienced, than it is to create such works themselves. I feel cheated, somehow, because only the characters get to see/hear this art, not the reader.

It was interesting to hear other people’s opinions of the book when we met last week. One woman did not care for it, both because she thought the characters “got off too easy” for things they had done, and because the style of the book was so far below the kind of literature we read when we were teenagers, before Young Adult literature existed as a separate category.

(I hadn’t actually realized it was YA while I was reading it, though it hardly surprised me once I found out. A bonus: one more book to check off my reading list for the year – I had been wondering where to find a YA book I might want to read.)

Many of the reviews of I’ll Give You the Sun just gush over it, with phrases like “structurally virtuosic,” “poetic and mesmerizing,” and “stunning, artfully woven.” But a review in The Guardian expresses concern that the YA bookshelves are full of too many emotionally intense first-person narratives like this one, and wonders whether “fiction for young adults was healthier before it became known as YA.”

It’s certainly a lot easier to identify with the characters in an intensely emotional novel like this (since most of us can relate to at least some of their issues to fit in, find love, and deal with anger and grief), than in one that is more intellectually demanding, like most of what I read as a teenager four decades ago.

In today’s society, where so many children and teens are immersed far more in electronic images than printed words, one might argue that any book that gets them reading is worthwhile. But will books like this inspire anyone to go on to read books that are less emotional and more challenging to read?

For what it does well, I’d say it’s a good book. But I’d have trouble saying it’s great, as many reviewers seem eager to do.

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