I’ll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson is a beautiful, coming-of-age story about finding yourself when everything feels shared, less, or not your own. The death of their mother significantly changes Noah and Jude, fraternal twins struggling to feel a sense of belonging. Sun is narrated by the shifting perspectives of Noah and Jude, from the year before their mother’s death to three years later. Even before the life-changing event, Noah and Jude were opposites in every way, competitive for their parents’ attention and a yearning for acceptance, but once things change, they flip personas. Sun creates a vacuum only for self-discovery with everything and everyone being conveniently pulled to one place. It’s about breaking free of encumbering labels, self-perpetuating guilt and shame, and rediscovering the magic.
Before Noah’s mother died, Noah was passionately consumed with art. Whenever he was emotionally entangled or brainstorming, he conceptualized paintings in his mind. His sister Jude was a surfer girl with latent, artistic talents but more interested in boys and parties than trying to get into a prestigious, art school, which was all Noah wanted. Flash forward three years later: Noah is sports guy and taking stupid risks by jumping off steep cliffs and not doing art anymore while Jude is attending the prestigious art school that Noah didn’t get into. She’s not surfing or going to parties anymore. Instead she’s creating misshaped clay sculptures (divine repercussions,) chatting with her Grandma (a figment of her imagination or possibly divine intervention,) and relying on her Grandma’s bible of superstition, quoting verses that are so unfounded but funny (like putting an onion in your pocket will bring you good luck.) She has already come apart at this point. After the death of their mother, Noah and Jude both put their lives on pause and just exist now. Then Jude’s teacher sends her over to be mentored by the “Rock Star of the Sculpture World” Guillermo Garcia, who’s a typical austere, tortured artist archetype. Beforehand, while waiting in a church, Jude meets the charismatic, chatterbox Oscar Ralph and everything changes.
What works best in Sun is its two, young adult protagonist. Noah and Jude engage us with witty commentary and playful banter containing symbols and metaphors. Noah and Jude play this game where they offer parts of the world off to each other. When Jude sees one of Noah’s drawings, she must have it and offers the sun to him as well as most everything else, except the flowers because Noah lets her have those. As twins, they already share most things with having both of them feel like they’re compromising or bargaining for things, which extends to how they feel about their parents and their friends. The mother, while wanting both of them to attend art school, spends most of her time with Noah on museum trips. When Noah’s crush Brian meets Jude for the first time, Noah wants to shut her out. After Noah and Brian join Jude’s posse of friends, Jude feels she’s snuffed out of the group. Sun constantly feels like it’s having these characters go back and forth with each never feeling there’s a place for them. Noah and Jude are ostensibly opposites but it feels more like a response to the other. Jude’s art only really surfaces when Noah decides to quit art. Jude stops surfing only for Noah to take on sports, creating this constant see-saw effect between the two characters. Nelson maps out a story that’s peppered with ambiguous lessons, stripping the black and white world to one full of colors. It’s not one way or the other.
Sun delicately weaves two different kinds of love stories but never goes excessively into the romance department. The twin’s experiences with love start with someone noticing them apart from being twins. Their love interests don’t know Noah and Jude as “NoahandJude.” Even while the characters are falling in love, Sun is far from being another love story and emphasizes the kind of people Noah and Jude are intimately. Noah’s story is painful, confusing, yet beautiful because of his narration of when the world, although doesn’t ostracize him (everyone kind of knew he was gay before he did,) makes him feels less of man when already he prefers arts over sports and doesn’t live up to his dad’s definition of masculinity. Noah’s conflicted about his identity, his sexual orientation, and belonging anywhere when it feels to him like so much of what he loves has to be kept reserved and he’s forced to live a lie. Jude struggles with breaking from that image of being “that girl,” which her mother often called her. When she loses her virginity to some guy in a car, the other guys determine she’s easy and brand her a slut. Afterwards she’s insecure and aimless trying to find her mom in her artwork, which she claims keeps breaking because her mom is angry with her. She’s trying to find forgiveness and a chance to start over. Love ends up being more transformative than a means of escape for each of the characters. There’s romance but it never replaces the twin’s personal stories.
But on the other hand, Sun is surprisingly a small world. Each character is connected in some way with some kind of purpose. While I love stories like this, cynics will toss their eyes at the many, MANY coincidences that arise at the end and at how smoothly everything comes together. Sun borders on being too miraculous but wins out by having almost all its characters happy and together, briefly suspending our disbelief and making us believe in the notions of prophecies. There’s a kind of invisible force in Sun that takes your broken spirit and turns it into your best self.