In “I’ll Give You the Sun" Jandy Nelson successfully embodies the inner workings of not one, but two teenagers. The twin brother and sister have dramatically different voices and none of the pandering, unnatural or out-dated references that have clogged the narrative of many “twin” books. Not only has Nelson realistically voiced two teens,she has also realistically given her readers an up front view of the thoughts, challenges and pains of a boy allowing himself to fully embrace his homosexuality. Perhaps her greatest triumph is that she has managed to write a strong story about life that is not about homosexuality, it simply has a character who is gay.
The story begins from the perspective a Noah, a 13 year old boy who sees the world as paintings and drawings awaiting interpretation. hyperbole helps readers imagine the way that the world looks to him, for example, when he describes his sister Jude and her luminous hair he says,
“I use up all of my yellows drawing it. It’s hundreds of miles long and everyone in Northern California has to worry about getting tangled up in it, especially little kids and poodles and now asshat surfers”
Each alternating chapter is told by Jude. She is also highly artistic but in a more practical and pragmatic way. She’s not driven to sketch often and her skills lie in sculpture, first in sand and found materials with the ultimate goal being to create a stone sculpture. Jude is very social and longs to be a part of the group, not understanding the lone wolf side of Noah and his ease and comfort in being solitary.
After a tragedy strikes the family, Jude wanders off into a strange swirl of religious fastidiousness. She keeps her beloved grandma’s bible at her side but she also interprets the words to slant her purpose. She begins writing her own “proverbs” in the gutters of the pages and she lives by them. If she carries an onion in her pocket it will keep danger away. If she puts love poem in her betrothed’s pocket he will think of her always.
The addition of two men to the family’s inner circle change every relationship and we experience Jude and Noah dive through the chaos, glory and myriad emotions and experiences caused by the men.
The story uses some convenient coincidences, for example, important people have connections that are mandatory to project the narrative in the manner that it does. Nelson finds a way to make the coincidences genuine, they are the connections that exist in small communities such as fine art. Paths often do cross, even those that we hope to never see again.
The author doesn’t shy away from referencing fine art which may be foreign to her primary reader base, but the bold choice enriches the reading experience for readers with an art background. Mentions of Brancusi, Cy Twombly, Jackson Pollock and Wassily Kandinsy help give the reader a perspective on the level of education that the kids are receiving and the era of art that their study is focused on.
I’ll Give You the Sun is about betrayal, familial relationships, sexual discovery and acceptance, friendship, mortality, drive, spirituality and more. There are so many threads of story subtly woven through the novel that it can easily be read multiple times and analyzed upon each of it’s threads. These are not your every day love-able teens. Every person in the book is flawed ranging to diabolical. There is not a character within who doesn’t commit at least one egregious act. From cheating, lying, theft, denial, physical harm and emotional distance.
The rights to turn this title into a movie sold before the publication date of the novel. If done correctly this could become a contemporary teen classic. Perhaps put this on your reading list before that time comes as the more likely and painful truth is that it will be nearly impossible for any film-maker to replicate the depth, truth, diversity and beauty of these troubled characters.