Physics, Race, and Empathy: THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR Book Review

The_sun_is_also_a_star_1_1024x1024         If I had heard the premise of this book beforehand, I probably never would have picked it up, so I’m grateful that I went in without knowing a thing. I picked up The Sun Is Also a Star because Everything, Everything , Nicola Yoon’s first novel, greatly exceeded my expectations—and, of course, for the absolutely gorgeous cover. I didn’t even read the blurb on the back before diving in. This, I believe, is the optimal way to read this story, so if you already know you’re going to read this one, I’d recommend reading this review no further.

         Tightly-paced and meticulously-planned, The Sun Is Also a Star takes place over the course of a single day. Natasha, already having the worst day of her life, meets Daniel, who feels like he’s on his last day of freedom and youth. Fate, Daniel thinks, keeps drawing them together. Natasha, clinging desperately to cynicism, instructs Daniel not to fall in love with her, even as she finds herself deeply drawn to the sweet, earnest boy. Continually pushed apart and pulled back together as they bounce from Manhattan offices to a Harlem beauty supply to a beggarly Brooklyn one-bedroom, the two teenagers work their way through questions from the famous New York Times essay on falling in love with a stranger. They debate time travel and poetry and, most of all, the merits of being a dreamer.

         Like Everything, Everything, this book is written in extremely short chapters, ranging from a handful of pages to just a few lines. This structure does more than cater to tiny attention spans. It allows Yoon to pull off a series of little magic tricks that transform a thin story of insta-love into an engrossing collage of the most human side of New York City. Between chapters in Natasha’s and Daniel’s perspectives, Yoon cuts away to close-ups of secondary characters, offering brief glimpses of the rich, often tragic lives behind the adults the young lovers so easily dismiss. These asides, however, never feel like digressions. They feel as core to the story as our leading couple’s flirtations. This book is written with extraordinary compassion. The perspectives and histories of everyone from the couple’s parents to the street violinist they pass only briefly are treated with great respect and empathy.

         Perhaps nowhere is the book’s tolerance for nuance demonstrated more strongly than in the book’s treatment of its loaded racial dynamics. Again like Everything, Everything, our leading couple is interracial. Unlike Yoon’s earlier work, however, this book brings the complicated racial implications of the relationship into the foreground. Drawing extensively on her own life and family, Yoon takes care in painting the tensions of a potential romance between the American-born son of first-generation Korean-Americans and an undocumented immigrant from Jamaica. Yoon digs into the pride, confusion, and frustration wrought by each’s layered racial identity, using sharp intelligence and deep empathy to reveal the long, rich stories that led to this moment for these two young people.

         One short chapter, for example, is devoted to a brief history of natural black hair in racial politics and African-American identity. Natasha’s (and, to a lesser extent, Daniel’s) life has been shaped by this fraught intersection of beauty and power, and while she seems to have some awareness of the judgement that others may place on her natural hair, she is not cognizant of the broader context. “When Natasha decides to wear hers in an Afro, it’s not because she’s aware of all this history,” the chapter notes, concluding: “She does it simply because it looks beautiful.” To Natasha, her hair tells a story not of the history of black Americans, but of the history of herself and her mother. Yoon neither commends nor condemns this perspective; it is simply how these young people see the world.

         And so it is with the whole story. Natasha and Daniel, lost in the intensity of their attraction and affection, see only a sliver of the world around them. Breaking past their limited perspectives, Yoon weaves together the exciting and tragic and diverse lives that interlock around them. Unlike her somewhat fanciful debut, Yoon’s second novel feels unflinchingly real, placing Natasha and Daniel in the midst of people living unhappy, mistake-riddled, but still beautiful lives.

         I had to wait a few extra days to write this review, just in case my feeling of ooooh my that was beautiful would wear off with some time away from the book. Of course, my love for a novel always dims somewhat when I’m no longer reading it, but my esteem for Yoon’s Swiss-watch plot and gorgeous prose has not lessened. This one gets a full five stars (hah) from me, not just for the inventive structure and sweet romance, but for the fierce, uncompromising compassion written into every word.

Advertisements

2 comments

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s