Book Review: I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson


There are some books that knock me off my feet due to low expectations. YA novels especially have the tendency to do this to me, wrecking any premonition I had about the plot of a book labeled YA. This book reaches over generational gaps; it speaks to the human condition as a whole, and for that, I adore this book.

A good friend recommended I’ll Give You the Sun and since I hadn’t dabbled in YA lit in awhile, I decided to give it a shot. It wasn’t long before I felt myself being absorbed into the story, into these beautiful images that Nelson creates almost effortlessly. This is a long novel but it somehow wasn’t long enough. I yearned for more details of every personality present in the novel, wished for more metaphors that were unexpected and full of truth.
The book tells the story of a set of twins (Noah and Jude), but the telling is not done traditionally; rather, Noah’s narration is from when he and Jude were 13 while Jude’s narration is from when she and Noah were 16. This makes for an interesting plot and structure because we leave the seemingly present moment with Noah and jump to the seemingly future which is somehow also the present. I loved this technique for it allowed us to see the huge gaps and fissures in the siblings’ relationship. We get to see the two sides from completely different perspectives in time and perception. Noah, who begins the story, paints as if his life depends on it. He’s an artist who is passionate and dedicated, and who also sees the world in beautiful metaphors: ‘Mom has a massive sunflower for a soul so big there’s hardly any room for her organs. Jude and me have one soul between us that we have to share: a tree with its leaves on fire.’ 13 year old Noah seems to be ‘weird’ compared to his twin sister who becomes the popular pretty girl. Noah also aligns himself with his mother rather than his father, and begins to experience sexual longings for men. Although the twins are already drifting apart, the story does a wonderful job of filling the reader in on what their relationship used to be: games of How Would You Rather Die and dominating the universe. ‘Does heaven have an ocean?’ one of the twins asks to which the other responds: ‘yes. And when you’re tired you crawl into your flower and sleep. During the day everyone talks in color instead of sounds. When people fall in love, they burst into flames.’ The twins both have drastically artistic souls, making metaphors out of nothing. But the two begin to keep secrets from one another, each thinking the other has abandoned the relationship they once coveted. Noah’s narration ends with the notion of his mother: ‘if mom died, the sun would go out.’

And, ironically, this is exactly what happens. Jude, who’s 16, tells us in her narration that their mother died in a car accident almost two years ago. And since we just moved out of Noah’s perspective where he admitted his deepest fear of losing his mother, our hearts break as if our sun went out too. Jude, who has somehow gotten into the art school that Noah had wanted to go to so bad, has changed. She is no longer the girl that wears short skirts and lipstick but is rather in a ‘boy boycott’ since her mother died, meaning that she wears unflattering clothes and makes herself unnoticeable. The twins have practically switched positions, Noah now being the cool guy and Jude being the weird art freak. But Jude feels the wrongness of it all: ‘This is what I want: I want to grab my brother’s hand and run back through time, losing years like coats falling from our shoulders.’ Jude’s chapters are especially haunting because of the ‘secret’ she has kept from Noah which she keeps referring to throughout. The book builds up to this reveal by going in reverse for Jude and going in forward for Noah (and Noah too ends up developing his own secret that he keeps from his sister). The two could easily regain their friendship, but the secrets seem unforgivable for them both.

At 13 Noah finds himself in love with the new next door neighbor Brian. He keeps it hidden, unsure of if Brian feels the same or of how his sister/family/peers will react to his sexuality. At 16 Jude finds herself losing the boycott she’s tried to hold onto when she meets a mysterious Englishman named Oscar. The two twins, at different points in their lives, fall victim to an all-encompassing love; as Noah says, ‘his soul might be a sun.’ Interestingly enough, Noah too meets Oscar during his narration. Oscar models for the drawing class Noah takes (illegally outside of the school), and Noah creates a picture of him that is breathtakingly beautiful, so much so that it makes the twins play their game of world domination: ‘We’ve been dividing up the world since we were 5. For the sun, stars, and all the trees, I’ll consider it.’ Noah says when Jude asks for the painting. And Jude replies: ‘Okay. I’ll give you the sun.’ THE TITLE. I love when the title sneaks up on you, taking you over completely. This moment is beautiful and slightly devoid of a powerful meaning, but we know there to be meaning behind the phrase: both twins, shadowed by regret and guilt, would give the sun in order to have one another again. Jude wishes for the brother she used to know: ‘You used to make art and talk to horses and pull the moon through the window for my birthday present.’

The story takes an interesting turn as Jude continues to work closely with Guileremo, a talented yet off-the wall sculptor who agrees to mentor Jude after not mentoring anyone for years. Oscar, the Englishman Jude keeps running into, stays with Guileremo. Jude begins to discover what has sent the artist over the years: a set of letters addressed to ‘my darling’ which went unanswered, which stopped coming. Jude fantasizes about who these were meant for as Noah unveils the truth to the reader in his narration: their mother had been having an affair with Guileremo. She was his darling. Noah’s secret is revealed- the affair has remained hidden from Jude for years. And Jude’s secret comes out as well: she threw Noah’s application away before it got to the art school. She took his place. Both of these secrets set the twins on parallel paths of shame, paths that were to never overlap again: Jude became a recluse obsessively speaking to the ghosts of her mother and grandmother, becoming strangely superstitious; Noah became a popular kid denying his sexuality and becoming an adrenaline junkie (and cliff diver). Jude falls more for Oscar and notes what her grandmother wrote about love: ‘Meeting your soulmate is like walking into a house you’ve been in before- you will recognize the furniture, the pictures on the wall, the books on the shelves, the contents of the drawers. You could find your way around in the dark if you had to.’ And in the past Noah falls deeper in love as well, finally learning that Brian feels the same way: ‘I close my eyes and drown in color, open them and drown in light because billions of buckets of light are being emptied on our heads from above. This is it: everything.’

Finally Noah reveals the truth to Jude and she comes to a few impressive conclusions: ‘Maybe a person is made up of a lot of people. Maybe we’re accumulating these new selves all the time, hauling them in as we make choices, as we screw up, step up, lose our minds, find them, fall apart, fall in love, as we grieve, grow, retreat from the world, dive into the world, as we make things, as we break things.’ And she reflects on the betrayal of her mother noting: ‘How can I be mad at her for finding her split-apart? At least her heart was full when she died. At least she was living her life, busting out of its seems, letting the horses gallop before she had to leave.’ And then Jude remembers the hurt it caused her father to which she notes that while her mother’s act was good, it was also devastatingly bad: ‘It was right and wrong both. Love does as it undoes. It goes after, with equal tenacity: joy and heartbreak.’ So true. Jude comes clean with her brother about her secret too, and each revelation gives the other twin hope. It gives them joy. It gives them the sun.

‘Quick, make a wish. Take a (second or third or fourth) chance. Remake the world.’ ❤


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