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

I'll Give You the SunIn this unusual and affecting young adult novel, colors explode off the page, ghosts of dead relatives give sassy advice and float off the ground, and a girl’s hair smells like “sad flowers”.

I’ll Give You the Sun is the story of twins Noah and Jude and the tumultuous, tragic events that propel their lives onto unexpected trajectories in their teen years. Noah and Jude are an inseparable, mind-melded duo up until age 13. They’re so close that they can never play Rochambeau — they always choose the same option: rocks/rocks, scissors/scissors, paper/paper. But then their lives explode into pain, jealousy, and hurt, and nothing is the same.

The story is told in two voices and in two timelines. Noah narrates the 13-year-old pieces of the story. Noah is a gifted artist, who paints in his head when he doesn’t have paper at hand. His imagination is wild and bold, and he sees the world as art constantly. He’s also a misfit, picked on and bullied by the local “surftards”, the older, cooler surfer boys who dominate the teen social life in their small Northern California town. When a new boy, Brian, moves in next door, Noah falls instantly and utterly  in love, and is in a constant, euphoric torment as he spends all his time with Brian, best of friends — yet wondering if he’s interpreting Brian’s reactions correctly.

Jude, at 13, is an aspiring artist too, creating wild sand sculptures on the beach that get washed away as the tides change. But when their mother seems to home in on Noah as the gifted one, Jude turns away and focuses on becoming a hellion of a teen girl, wearing too much make-up, too short skirts, and flirting excessively with boys who are not going to treat her well.

From meeting Jude through Noah’s eyes, we jump to Jude’s piece of the story, when she is 16, enrolled in a prestigious art school for sculpture, worried that her dead mother is haunting her, and in desperate need of a way out of her misery. From a 13-year-old sex kitten, Jude has become a girl in hiding, dressed in baggy tshirts and jeans with her hair cropped short and hidden under a hat. Jude worries about Noah, who’s the epitome of normalcy, running cross-country, hanging out and drinking with the in-crowd as his public high school, and not doing a shred of art.

What happened to these two? How did their lives goes so completely off the rails? What cataclysmic event caused the 13-year-olds we knew to become 16-year-olds we can barely recognize?

To say that it’s complicated is an understatement.

As the plot moves forward, we get bits and pieces of story from both Noah and Jude, and come to understand both the terrible loss they’ve suffered and the crushing guilt each bears. Noah and Jude each feel responsible for what’s happened, but they don’t talk about it with each other. Each feels that they deserve whatever punishment comes their way; each feels the need to atone and make amends, but both feel that they’ve already screwed up and are beyond forgiveness.

I won’t give away much more of the plot. Suffice it to say that as new people enter their lives, Noah and Jude each learn more about what they did and didn’t do, what else contributed to the events in their family’s life, and start to understand why and how their lives changed so dramatically.

I’ll Give You the Sun is a celebration of the artistic impulse, the need to create and make, the innate ability to see the world in colors, shapes, and textures that the rest of us miss out on. There’s a sense of magic in the air, as Jude converses with her dead grandmother and observes her folk superstitions about love and healing. The writing is full of imagery, letting us inside the brains of two characters whose senses inform everything they see and do:

I start to run, start to turn into air, the blue careening off the sky, careening after me, as I sink into green, shades and shades of it, blending and spinning into yellow, freaking yellow, then head-on colliding into the punk-hair purple of lupine: everywhere.

flourish-31609_1280The sky’s overflowing with orange clouds and each time one floats down, Brian bats is back up like a balloon. I watch him hypnotize the girls as he does the fruit in the trees, the clouds in the sky, as he did me.

flourish-31609_1280Sometimes now, I swear I can see sound, the dark green howling wind, the crimson crush of rain – these sound-colors swirling around my room while I lie on my bed thinking about Brian. His name, when I say it aloud: azul.

In terms of pacing, I found myself a little impatient at first. After a relatively short Noah section to start the book, there’s next a very lengthy Jude section, and I just didn’t feel that I knew her well enough to care that much or spend that much time with her — I wanted more Noah! Eventually, by mid-book, the stories seem to reach a better balance, each one absorbing in its own way, so that I didn’t mind bouncing between the two time lines. I think it was at this point that the threads connecting the two sides of the story become clearer, so that in a way we end up in a detective role, seeking the clues to the mystery of how before turned into after for these two unique but matched people.

By the end, I was deeply moved by the story and the way Noah and Jude lost and then found each other again. With a cast of interesting and unusual supporting characters, the world of I’ll Give You the Sun feels full and well developed. It’s interesting to see the lines of connection between the different players, and how each played a part both in the earlier events and in how Jude and Noah finally find a way forward.

If you enjoy your fiction with a touch of magic and wild flights of imagination, you’ll love the writing in I’ll Give You the Sun. I know I did. With unusually lovely language and a plot full of heart-wrenching emotion, this book should be savored for its sounds and textures as well as for its plot.


The details:

Title: I’ll Give You the Sun
Author: Jandy Nelson
Publisher: Dial
Publication date: September 16, 2013
Length: 371 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Library

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