Every artist knows that moment of choice, the feeling you get when you land on the right angle or frame or color or word, the thing that cracks it wide open, when the whole world feels possible. Every artist equally knows the frustration, the sheer terror, that comes when nothing works. When you draft and you sketch and you shoot, and all of your choices are flat and voiceless. The promise that art holds for all of us is that there is a right choice in there. But this promise is also a seductive lie, the one that tells us if we can just make all the right choices, everything will turn out alright.
Kelly Loy Gilbert's Picture Us in the Light is an exquisite, heartbreaking, love-filled examination of the power of choice - in art, in family, and in relationship. It gives us both the promise and the reality, the truth that sometimes a choice can mean everything even if everything doesn't turn out alright.
Danny Cheng is an artist, a young talent poised on the brink of a bright future. His parents, who immigrated from China a few years before he was born, see his future in the best possible light: he will be accepted to RISD (Rhode Island School of Design), he will become an acclaimed artist, he will be the fulfillment of all their dreams. But Danny is not as sure. He tries to draw and can't. He knows that life is made up of a series of small things, proving it through his unexpected portraiture: each face composed of countless small images, coming together to form a true reflection of the subject. He also understands "what it means for your life to orbit around a single choice, how everything that comes after will always originate from a single point."
This is true and not true at the same time, for Danny lives within a future formed out of multiple "single choice" moments. One of the points around which everything spins, one of those choices, is the suicide of one of Danny's classmates. The event happens about a year before the book opens, but the impact is ever-present for Danny and his friends. Similarly, the choices made by his parents, before he was born and in the ensuing years, continue to send out ripples. As Danny attempts to understand his parents, as his family continues to grapple with the loss of his sister before he was born or the loss of his father's job or the loss of the family apartment, all of these "single points" contribute to the emerging story of Danny and his becoming.
Besides his family, the most important presence in Danny's life is his best friend, Harry. As they look toward college and the separation it could bring, Danny has to wrestle with his feelings for Harry. Harry has been dating Regina (Danny's other best friend) for years, but does he really love her? If he tells Harry how he feels will it destroy their friendship? These questions, and so many other hidden things, make for a compelling and emotional series of discoveries, as the choices people make for the ones they love are revealed.
There is a moment in the novel when Danny, awake in the middle of the night, describes the vague ache in his stomach as "like when you clean a dirty dish and then it's broken anyway," and the rush of truth and familiarity runs over your body, and you realize - instantly - that this is a writer you can trust. This is a tiny moment, one of countless perfect choices Gilbert makes in this novel, one of many just-right descriptions that make me want to read everything she's written.
Another example of the brilliance of Gilbert's work is the way she writes the body. Danny is the emotional heart of this beautiful novel, but he is also the physical center. Just as a visual artist must somehow capture the physical gestures of his or her subject, Gilbert describes the physical experience of being a body in space perfectly. From the ease of a shoulder bump to the electric tension between Harry and Danny, each moment expands and simultaneously pinpoints the feelings of the characters.
There are choices that change everything. But like Danny's portraits, this story insists that every person, every life is a composite. Near the end of the novel, Danny realizes that "maybe life is when you gather all the things you can hold on to and carry with you, and cross your fingers it'll be enough." Danny also realizes that the daily choice to live -- to choose to keep going -- is perhaps the hardest and most important thing we have to give:
Maybe it takes everything you have, every last atom, to sail past that dark idea, and then on arrival all you have to offer the world is your exhausted, battered self. But that's everything. You know? It's enough.
There is so much in this novel that I haven't even mentioned, from the science behind our very atoms recognizing each other to the warring ideas of guilt and forgiveness and sacrifice and faith in the face of pain. I could share dozens more passages that spoke powerfully to me, but instead, I'll just recommend you read it and share it with the teen readers in your life. YA is usually the young reader genre I struggle with the most. Too often, it offers (for me) a distorted, one-note version of teenagers, inconsistent with the unique struggles and joys I see in young people. This book resonates with truth, vibrating with hurt and desire and love and loss, but never reductive. I look forward to Gilbert's forthcoming novel, When We Were Infinite (March 2021), and for all the ways her work will continue to send ripples into the world.
The best books spark the best conversations! If you have thoughts to share, please feel free to email me at email@example.com. I promise a reply.
Every Wednesday, I send out something of a hodgepodge of ideas, a gathering of thoughts on books, culture, and unexpected moments of joy. Sign up here to stay in the loop!