During the summer of 2015, my best friend and I picked up I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, the author of The Sky Is Everywhere. I had heard from my Young Adult Literature professor (shout out to Dr. Bittel!) that Give was highly praised and weighted with award authority. If there’s anything I’ve learned from award-winning books in any discipline, it’s to tread carefully and keep expectations low. Sometimes what you consider award-winning isn’t what Newbery or Printz believe, and that can be disappointing.
However, Nelson’s novel deserves all of the awards and then some. I’m not kidding or even exaggerating when I say this book is beautiful. The language, the imagery, the dialogue, the pacing, the characters: it’s all gorgeous and breathtaking in a way I never thought possible. I spent years lusting over John Green’s language-wielding powers, and I still do to a point, but with Give Nelson has cast me under her spell. I have found another teacher to whose talent and quality I aspire; she joins the ranks of JK Rowling, John Green, and Neil Gaiman. A pretty hearty cast of characters, if I say so myself.
I can hear you asking: is this just Riley gushing over a book because of the honeymoon stage (yes, that exists in books, I swear)? When I first read it, I would have discredited my high praise because of the honeymoon stage. If you’ve been here a while, my review on Divergent was a result of the honeymoon book stage, and I definitely have different views on it (and the series) now. However, the love for Give is real and legitimate. Six months later, I’d still start a life with this novel and swear to read nothing else (except maybe Harry Potter). It’s that entrancing.
A brief summary: Noah and Jude Sweetwine are twins estranged by the twists and turns of life that force them apart. However, at age 13 when the book starts they aren’t separated just yet. In the second chapter, at age 16, the separation is definite and you aren’t sure why. Nelson switches between ages 13 and 16 (with Noah and Jude as narrators, respectively), and the answers to rising questions aren’t revealed until the very end. As described on the back of the book: “The early years are Noah’s story to tell. The later years are Jude’s.” With that in mind…
What makes this novel so good? Let’s look at the breakdown.
Switching between two different characters at two different times in life may seem risky, especially when those two characters are twins, but Nelson manages to make the transitions clean and swift. I often found myself longing to continue the story of Noah by skipping a Jude chapter, but once I started with Jude I couldn’t possibly skip her point of view. You soon realize both perspectives are necessary because what you get from one you won’t get from the other, especially because of the age differences. The chapters begin as typical 20-ish pages, but by the end of the novel they escalate to 70 pages a piece. While this seemed a bit nonsensical at first (I’m one of those who needs to finish a chapter before I do something else), the total immersion you get as a result is significant to how you understand the story and how you feel about the characters.
Speaking of characters, they are definitely a large reason this book is so wonderful. The first page of the first chapter begins with Noah Sweetwine: “This is how it all begins.” Very fitting. With this sentence, he looks at the reader, takes them by the hand, and sits them down. He eases the reader into the narrative with six words of welcome. In contrast, the first page of the second chapter begins with Jude Sweetwine: “Here I am.” Instead of taking the audience by the hand, she stands like a piece of art waiting to be judged. She presents who she is without beating around the bush and doesn’t give the audience a chance to sit. She’s fast-paced, using half the words her brother does to greet us. To be honest, these sentences are very telling about the characters who say them. While the focus of the novel is definitely on Noah and Jude, the background characters are just as rounded and dynamic. The Sweetwine parents, Grandma Sweetwine, Brian, Oscar, and Guillermo all jump off the page and beg you to listen to their words. Trust me: when I listened, they pulled me straight into the pages and refused to release me. Even to this day, when I haven’t read the book in six months.
Holy goodness gracious, the language. I spouted about it earlier, but it is beautiful. It changes between Noah and Jude because of their vast difference, as you would expect, but Noah’s chapters have the best descriptions. In describing why guys like Jude, he says: “And because of her hair—I use up all my yellows drawing it” (3). You can immediately see him drawing pictures of them together, all of his yellow pastels wasted on the curls of Jude’s hair. It’s a striking image to me because of how little is said to get such detail. Noah also uses names of hypothetical paintings to summarize a scene. When he imagines Zephyr, a surfer, walking away with the ocean at his back, he uses the following title: “Portrait: The Boy Who Walked Off with the Sea” (3). This happens with every large point in Noah’s chapters, whereas Jude uses verses from Grandma Sweetwine’s bible to rationalize her strange decisions. In the second chapter when Jude is about to walk into her art critique, she cites the following passage: “A person in possession of a four-leaf clover is able to thwart all sinister influences” (24). The language each twin uses captures the world through their eyes and sets them distinctly apart from each other. It’s interesting to watch their words fluctuate and evolve as chapters continue and events occur; their language grows with them.
One thing I will warn about is that, with Noah’s language at least, it becomes hard to tell whether he means things metaphorically or literally. It warrants having to read the phrase or sentence a couple times over, but I would argue that’s part of his charm. He is so beyond reality that his language and thought processes stretch with him. In contrast, Jude’s language stays close to home and vague normalcy while her mind floats beyond the realm of rational possibility. Another concern that’s been aired is the convenient way things tie up at the end. I’m not going to say much more on that, but I liked how it ended.
In the interest of keeping this review spoiler-free, I won’t continue with my thoughts on character relationships and the like, but I will leave you with this: Give delivers emotions and laughs in a carefully-wrapped brown paper package tied up with string. I can only hope it’ll become your favorite thing, for the sake of rhyming. If you do happen to read Give, let me know! I’d love to talk about it. I’m in the process of rereading it and would love to hear your thoughts. Until next time!