I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
Published: 2014, Dial
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary
I don’t know how this can be but it can: A painting is both exactly the same and entirely different every single time you look at it. That’s the way it is between Jude and me now.
As children, fraternal twins Noah and Jude were incredibly close. So close, in fact, that they referred to themselves as NoahandJude, one soul divided between two bodies. But their thirteenth year is one of major changes for both of them, and the tragedies of their lives cause the twins’ relationship to fracture. At sixteen, the twins have seemingly lost their connection with one another, and both are so damaged, so bitter, so hopeless, that reconciliation seems impossible. A mutual love of art and creation that helped make Noah and Jude inseparable, and nothing short of rekindling that love will allow them to forgive each other and begin the slow healing process.
Expectations for this novel were sky high (especially for those who had read Nelson’s debut, The Sky is Everywhere), and Nelson delivered another exquisitely told tale. I’ll even say that I’ll Give You the Sun is a better, more nuanced story than The Sky is Everywhere.
At both ages during which the story takes place (Noah and Jude’s thirteenth and sixteenth years), neither twin is without his and her flaws. And this, I think, is very important to note. The sections relating everything that happened before their lives were overrun with tragedy is narrated by introspective, artistic Noah. It’s perhaps a little easier to be sympathetic of his issues and struggles when reading from his perspective, and even though he still makes some errors in judgement, he never adopts a holier than thou act with the boy-crazy, extraverted Jude.
Jude’s narration occurs a few years after everything in their lives has spiraled out of control. She’s become the artistic one studying at the elite art academy, the quiet and superstitious and antisocial one, while Noah has a lot of friends at his public high school, no longer creates art, and seems to have lost an essential piece of his soul in the process. It is sad to see the changes that tragedy has wrought on both twins, though as both narratives continue, readers will learn that Noah and Jude had their issues even before the tragedies occur. Both twins have gone from being people they (perhaps erroneously) thought they were satisfied with, to ones that they definitely aren’t satisfied with.
Although Noah and Jude take turns narrating the story, Nelson avoids any narrative confusion through relating two very different perspectives. At first, Noah is the one for whom art is life. His narrative is very visually oriented, and he is prone to imagine important or emotionally resonant situations as titles accompanied by depictions of their works of art. As with Noah, Jude’s narration is very internally driven, but it is a bit more grounded and instead of using imagined works of art to help make sense of her world, she instead relies on the sayings and superstitions of their grandmother. Alone, Nelson has created two distinct characters with unique narrative voices. But this is not really a story about Noah and Jude, but about NoahandJude.
Much of I’ll Give You the Sun is devoted to an exploration of the various choices that Noah and Jude make, both for themselves and for each other, and the consequences that ensue. The underlying question here is whether either can really be blamed for the tragedies of the other’s life. The answer, of course, is not quite so simple, and it is here that Nelson really excels in her creation of nuanced characters who are both incredibly flawed and yet eminently empathetic.
One fascinating thing about reading through an author’s titles is having the chance to witness authorial growth and identify certain aspects that make the author’s works uniquely theirs. Through her two publications, Nelson has written two stories about teenagers coping with deaths of loved ones, about fractured families, and about the role that arts play in the grieving process, all through poetic and visually stunning language. It’s a bit too early in Nelson’s career to predict whether she will continue to stick to certain elements, but, given the success of her first two stories, one can certainly hope so.
I’ll Give You the Sun is a practically perfect read if one can overlook the ending (which is a bit too convenient, perhaps). This is a story about learning how to heal and move forward with one’s life, and Noah and Jude’s struggles to do so are both realistic and ultimately satisfying.
Rating: 5 stars