Review by Bookgazing.
‘This is a story about love,’ Jandy Nelson says in her preface to I’ll Give You the Sun ‘crazy complicated love of all kinds: between guys and girls, guys and guys, mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, artists and their art, but mostly it’s about the fierce, roller-coaster love between the twins themselves.’. Does that description make you long to crack the covers of this 2015 Printz Award winner? Better prepare yourself – it’s gonna be emotional.
I’ll Give You the Sun tells the story of twins Noah and Jude; siblings who, at thirteen, remain as close as they were in the womb. The reader meets Noah first and his first person narrative unspools, shaping the reader’s early understanding of the twins’ world. Noah is imaginative, artistic and open. Even though he’s beset by bullies who want to throw him off Devil’s Drop, the highest cliff around, he maintains a passionate devotion towards the whole world. In fact, Noah is so charmingly free with his love and enthusiasm that it’s easy for the reader to forget first person narratives always provide a partial rendering of the world, and to dive into Noah’s story as if he offers up pure truth from a pure soul.
Later, Nelson corrects this vision of Noah and complicates his character to great effect. While I’ll Give You the Sun is a bright shining book about love and about art, it’s also a book about how people hurt each other. Nelson’s story manages to encompass how characters worth caring about can be both sensitive and savage. And through Noah, I’ll Give You the Sun bravely shows how characters can be smart, caring, artistic people but still willfully tear others apart. Noah is often not a nice or good character – he jealousy destroys his sister’s artwork, outs the boy he loves and wounds his mother. He’s often way too fond of the word ‘surftards’ (changing the start of a slur does not make its use any more acceptable). He is also intensely relatable because of his flaws and is often in so much emotional pain that it is impossible not to empathise with him.
At the heart of I’ll Give You the Sun is a death; Diana, Noah and Jude’s ‘blow-in’ art-obsessed mother, dies unexpectedly when her car careens off a bridge. When she dies, the bond between the twins dissolves and they become strangers to each other. The full reasons for this split are partly obscured by the book’s narrative structure; the novel switches between Noah’s narrative, which takes place before the accident when the twins are thirteen and a half, and Jude’s first person narrative set three years after Noah’s begins. However, initially it seems that Noah was closest to their mother and is pulled under by grief which he refuses to share with his sister. In contrast, Jude and their mother were estranged, and Jude blames herself for the car crash.
In the present timeline, both siblings have retreated into new personas and separate forms of grief. Noah gives up painting, shaves his head and starts jumping off cliffs with the surf crowd. The fact that this present day story is entirely told by Jude, who is isolated from her brother, means he is rather blank and absent – as hidden in these sections of narrative as he has become in life. Popular daredevil Jude cuts off her sunlike rope of hair, hides under baggy sweatshirts and becomes obsessed with the many ways people die. She drags herself through courses at the art school Noah wanted to attend, but she looks set to fail and all her clay sculptures break in the kiln. Jude is convinced it’s her dead mother who breaks them.
As the book progresses, Noah and Jude continually hurt each other, both in the past and present timeline. They often cause pain on purpose, because it makes them feel better, even though they are later filled with great remorse. Noah’s story in particular is littered with instances where he needlessly hurts others. Yet it is easy for the reader to continue loving Noah, and perhaps more importantly to continue understanding him, even as he creates these calculated instances of pain. And, by following Noah as he hits out at people, I’ll Give You the Sun allows the reader to access a more compassionate understanding of other characters, like the twin’s parents, who hurt people they love.
Their mother’s death drives the twin’s respective present day stories just as her presence drove their lives when they were thirteen: Noah uplifted and freed, Jude misunderstood and pushed into a mold. A negotiation of her mother’s disappointment is central to Jude’s story, as is the fight they were having when she died. She seeks to appease Diana and earn her forgiveness through sculpture. This quest leads her to Guillermo the sculptor mentor who agrees to help Jude escape from her haunting by making something her mother can’t break – a stone carving. Guillermo’s tutelage allows Jude to open her heart and release her artistic ability; a talent which her mother accidentally squashed.
I’ll Give You the Sun is very good at making tropes into stories. Jude & Guillermo’s mentor/mentee relationship is bright and wondrous. It resists the common idea that mentors must push pupils through abusive, one-sided artistic punishment sessions to hone their talent. Guillermo and Jude enjoy each others company and, while Guillermo may be the very model of the broken-hearted, brilliant artist, he never uses that as an excuse to hide from Jude, or to unfairly judge her art. Jude saves Guillermo just as much as he saves her and thankfully, despite Guillermo being ‘the rockstar of modern art’ there is never a hint of any dependent master-pupil romance. The two pull each other out of the rock that binds them just as they free their sculptures.
Meanwhile, largely off screen, Noah deals with the loss of Diana’s unwavering motherly support and her artistic understanding. His first person narrative, set in the past, shows the reader how important his mother was in his life and how close they were. Except, of course, it all turns out to be much more complicated in the end. This book is full of secrets and most of them in someway lead back to Diana.
Dead mothers are a storytelling staple – media sometimes seems like a misogynistic death cult, sacrificing women who bear children to ensure a continual supply of new stories. I’ll Give You the Sun could have easily made the twin’s mother a blank space for them to project their own feelings. However, not only does Diana get a name (think back to the wealth of unnamed dead mothers in fairy tales) but she gets a strong, individual presence in the book both before and after she dies. While her death informs the twin’s lives, so does her life. I’ll Give You the Sun may be primarily the twin’s story but Diana is never just the sum of their reactions to her as their mother. And the centrality of her influence on them, for good or ill, is never in question.
Speaking of tropes, I was also particularly pleased to see Nelson break open the storytelling cliche that female sexuality leads to death. Jude feels like her first time, which took place the day her mother died, means she can blow the world apart just by liking a boy. It’s not logical, it’s grief compounded by the fact that her first time was actually a rape. By having Jude place the well worn trope that ‘sex equals death’ at the core of her actions, Nelson provides a much needed rebuttal to this weirdly persistent idea. As a bonus, the reader gets a pleasantly strung out romantic storyline as Jude begins to fall in love with Oscar, Guillermo’s bad boy charge.
My one reservation about the way I’ll Give You the Sun works on common tropes is that it includes a dead parent in the story of Noah, a gay character on his way to coming out. This is not so much a criticism of Nelson’s story, more of patterns that have emerged across a vista of coming out stories. Certain kinds of tragedy (car accidents, dead parents and suicide in particular) follow LGBTQ characters around, recurring in story after story almost as if there is something subconsciously telling authors that these characters cannot be separated from these kinds of tragedy.
But let’s end this review by talking about love. Noah is in love with Brian the boy next door. If Noah is passionate about art, then Brian is all the colours in the paintbox. I found much of the substance of their relationship – the growing closeness between them, descriptions of their attraction, and the scenes where they finally got together – achingly tense and romantic. I would just have liked to see more of them happily together before the story closed.
‘Dear Reader,’ Jandy Nelson prefaces her novel ‘I’m so excited for you to meet twins Noah and Jude.’ Oh reader, me too. Noah and Jude often broke me. How do you stand in front of lines like ‘”She’s my mom too. Why can’t you share?”‘ – simple lines loaded with so much emotion – and not crack a little bit? But by the end I was glued back together and ready to meet more of Nelson’s characters.
Jandy Nelson, I’ll Give You the Sun (Walker Books: London, 2014). 978-1-4063-2649-9, 416pp., paperback.