Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Romance in Community: Jandy Nelson's I'LL GIVE YOU THE SUN

In its most typical form, a romance novel focuses tightly on two individuals who meet, fall in love, and establish a new social entity: the romantic couple. Secondary characters, if present, exist primarily in relation to the romance: they serve as obstacles to the development of the burgeoning relationship, or as sounding boards for one protagonist as he or she works out his/her thoughts and feelings about the other's potential as a romantic partner. Or, more and more often, as budding protagonists for the next book in a series.

In the actual world, though, most people's romantic lives are inextricably entangled with the lives of myriad others: friends, family members, co-workers, people in other personal and social groups to which they belong. And those other people have their own interests, pains, and desires, unrelated to the primary couple's development relationship but often influencing it, both directly and indirectly, in many unexpected ways.

While the fantasy of the tight-focused romance has its pleasures, I also enjoy occasionally dipping my toes into romances that hearken a bit closer to reality, those that depict romantic relationships developing within communities of others.

Subject mirrors form in Jandy Nelson's second YA novel, I'll Give You the Sun, with its dual narrators, adolescent twins Jude and Noah. It's not only the (presumably white) narrators who switch from chapter to chapter, but also the book's chronology, the stories of the sibling's thirteenth year (told by Noah) interspersed with those of their sixteenth (told by Jude). Each story contains the missing puzzle pieces to the mysteries of the other, to be untangled and rewoven back into a semblance of order by the reader.

Noah's narration tells of his first summer romance, a romance with the boy who moves in next door. A boy who seems just as weird, as unconventional and revolutionary as does Noah, who paints not only on paper, but also in what he calls the Invisible Museum in his head. When he's with Brian, Noah can almost forget having to think about the Neighborhood Threat Level, about being constantly teased and sometimes beat up for not embodying or enacting conventional masculinity. Nelson portrays the dazzle, the awkwardness, the brain-draining tongue-tied-ness of first love through the eyes of a young artist with both beauty and skill:

Most of the time people look less like you remember when you see them again. Not him. He's shimmering in the air exactly like he's been in my mind. He's a light show. He starts walking toward me. "I don't know the woods. I was hoping..." He doesn't finish, half smiles. This guy is just not an asshat. "What's your name, anyway?" He's close enough to touch, close enough to count his freckles. I'm having a hand problem. How come everyone else seems to know what to do with them? Pockets, I remember with relief, pockets, I love pockets! I slip the hands to safety, avoiding his eyes. There's that thing about them. I'll look at his mouth if I have to look somewhere.
     His eyes are lingering on me. I can tell this even with my undivided attention on his mouth. Did he ask me something? I think he did. The IQ's plummeting. (84-85).

But Noah's story is not just a love story; it's also the story of two siblings in the midst of painful, rage-inducing rivalry. Twins Noah and Jude are in desperate competition for the attention, and the love, of their artistic writer-mother, purportedly under the guise of preparing their portfolios for application to a private high school, the California Center for the Arts. Quiet, oddball Noah's always felt that brash, daring Jude has gotten the lion's share of their family's love, the favorite not only of their Grandmother Sweetwine, but also of their athletic scientist father. Mom has been neutral ground—until she sees Noah's art. Noah is thrilled, but Jude is crushed by her mother's obvious preference for her weird brother and his paintings; teen rebellion, in the form of makeup, revealing clothing, and hanging out with boys are Jude's retaliation against a rejection she's never before experienced.

In Jude's story of the twins' sixteenth year, Noah and Jude's positions have flipped, in more ways than one. Now, it is Jude who's the outcast wearing baggy clothes, the one fearful of strange diseases, the one whom nobody talks to, the one who's an embarrassment to her sibling. And it's Noah who fits right in, the normal, heterosexual, athletically-inclined teen boy. Even though Jude knows it's all an act, that he's only wearing "flame retardant," changing his outsides like a toad changes the color of his skin. But she can't call him on it, because Jude and Noah, the other half of each other's whole, are no longer speaking to one another. Because it is Jude, not Noah, who got accepted at CSA? Because there was more (and less) to the shimmering Brian than Noah had seen? Because both Jude and Noah have secrets they need to keep to protect the other, and themselves? Because their own community has imploded, seemingly beyond repair?

Jude's story, like Noah's, is also a love story. Despite the "boy boycott" Jude has declared after her own early adolescent crush goes terribly wrong, Jude finds herself drawn to the resident bad boy at her new sculpture teacher's studio, a boy with a camera, cockiness, and far too much charm for his, or her, own good:

     I like that I made him laugh. A nice laugh, easy and friendly, lovely really, not that I notice. Frankly, I also believe I have impulse-control issues, well, used to. Now I'm very much in control of things. "So what kind of impulses can't you control?"
     "Not a one, I'm afraid," he says. "That's the problem."
     That is the problem. He's tailor-made to torture. I'm betting he's at least eighteen, betting he stands alone at parties leaning against walls, knocking back shots while long-legged girls in fire-engine red mini-dresses slink up to him. Granted, I haven't been to a lot of parties lately, but I have seen a lot of movies and he's that guy: the lawless, solitary, hurricane-hearted one who wreaks havoc, blowing through towns, through girls, through his own tragic misunderstood life. A real bad boy, not like the fake ones at my art school, with their ink and piercings and trust funds and cigarettes from France.
     I bet he just got out of jail.
     I decide to pursue his "condition" as it falls under medical research, not because I'm fascinated by him or flirting with him or anything like that. I say, "Meaning if you were in the room with The Button, you, the end of the world nuclear bomb button, just you and it, man and button, you'd press it? Just like that?"
     He laughs that wonderful easy laugh again. "Kapow," he says, illustrating the explosion with his hands.
     Kapow is right. (175-76).
But bad boys, just like siblings, just like parents, have a way of switching sides, of breaking your heart. Does Jude—or Noah—have the strength to reach both for independence and connection, coupledom and family? To remake their sibling relationship, their family, their community, from the shards anger has left behind?

To do what the very best art does: remake the world?

Photo credits:
Boys holding hands: The Viewspaper
Twins sculpture: Seasonal Living
Boy with camera: Dear Teen Me
Hands/Globe: Wanderthoughts

I'll Give You the Sun
Dial, 2014

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