Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Annual 2014. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.
“Every time Grandma S. read Jude’s and my palms, she’d tell us that we have enough jealousy in our lines to ruin our lives ten times over. I know she’s right about this. When I draw Jude and me with see-through skin, there are always rattlesnakes in our bellies. I only have a few. Jude had seventeen at last count.”
At thirteen, Jude and her brother Noah are the kind of incredibly close twins you only read about in books, seeming to share one soul, and a mutual empathy that defies logic. Noah is introspective, and artistic, and desperately, madly in love with the boy next door. Jude is wild and adventurous, and brave enough for the both of them. But all that is about to change, as rivalry and tragedy transform their relationship. Three years later, the twins are hardly recognizable as their younger selves. Noah has given up art and taken up sports, becoming the son his father always wanted. Jude has disappeared into a uniform of hoodies and baggy jeans, striving for invisibility where she once demanded to be seen. They are barely speaking to one another, and that seems unlikely to change, when Jude’s near-expulsion from school brings her a new mentor who gives her the means to express what she has been holding inside for so long.
I’ll Give You the Sun is told in alternating perspectives, with Noah conveying the early part of the story, and Jude taking over the later years. Jandy Nelson uses this technique to full effect, maintaining suspense by choosing to change streams at the most wrenching moments, although the chapters are a little long. Each twin only knows part of what has brought them to this impasse, but the depth of the connection between the two halves of the story only becomes apparent as the plot slowly progresses. Each twin has their own unique voice, but Jude is slightly easier to relate to, perhaps because we can see how she came to be so broken. With Noah, it is necessary to simply accept weirdness as his natural state of being. Time and circumstances cause the twins to trade places so that Noah, once the outcast, is the seemingly normal one, and Jude, once popular, is now a misfit by choice. However, instead of cultivating empathy for one another, this simply drives them further apart.
Jandy Nelson has an amazing way with words, and it is absolutely no surprise that she is also a poet. Her imagery is particularly outstanding, and conveys a huge amount of emotion in small packages:
“I sneak a glance at Jude. I can tell she’s crumpled up in a corner of herself, just like I do in emergencies. There’s a crawlspace in me that no one can get to, no matter what. I had no idea she had one, too.”
Some of these images are slipped into the regular course of the narration, but others are part of the twins’ unique perspectives. Noah always sees the world through an artist’s eyes. He titles moments in time, such as “Self Portrait: Noah Eating Gray Apples on Gray Grass,” and “Landscape: When God Paints Outside the Lines.” Jude on the other hand, is governed by her grandmother’s superstitions: “What someone says to you right before they die will come true,” and “As long as a man has a lock of your hair on your person, you will be in his heart.” It takes nothing less than a wordsmith to pull of global warming as a metaphor for love, but Nelson manages that, too, when Jude finds her “boy boycott” threatened by Oscar, a damaged English boy three years her senior, who seems to be able to melt all her defenses.
Although the plot can be heavy and emotionally intense, the story progresses towards a happy and hopeful ending, and one that conveys a real sense of growth for the two main characters. The plot is ostensibly about putting their relationship back to the way it was, it really ends up being about building a newer, healthier family dynamic. This book is a dazzling, exuberant work of fiction full of art and passion, jealousy and loss.
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