Saturday, July 28, 2018

Book Review: "Picture Us in the Light" by Kelly Loy Gilbert

Boy, there is a lot going on in this book! There was a period of time where I really wasn't sure what Kelly Loy Gilbert wanted the crux of the story to be, but in the end, this was a lovely, emotional book about the complexity of our relationships with family and friends, the destructive nature of secrets, and how self-acceptance can set your demons to rest.

Danny Cheng has dreamed of being an artist for as long as he can remember. For him, drawing is a way of expressing emotions, and conveying the way he feels about important people in his life. When he finds out that he's been accepted into the Rhode Island School of Design—his dream school—it's unclear who is more excited, him or his immigrant parents, who want Danny to achieve successes they never had the chance to.

"We all have those things, I think—those things we want too badly to speak about aloud for fear someone'll swoop in and tell us we're just dreaming, those things we hold close and fantasize about at night and swear to the world we don't care that much about."

As much as he's looking forward to RISD, he is equally anxious about life without his best friend, Harry. The two of them, along with Harry's girlfriend, Regina, are inextricably linked in so many ways, especially after Danny makes a crucial decisions with ramifications that ripple throughout the school. As the one-year anniversary of a school tragedy approaches, Danny is unsure of where he stands in his friendship with Regina and what the future of Regina and Harry's relationship will be, so he can understand what he means to Harry as well. All of it fills Danny with so much anxiety, he's incapable of expressing his feelings, and he's lost the ability to draw.

"The people who matter to you most—you aren't always going to occupy that same space in their lives, I guess. Maybe that's what I always loved most about art, that it was a way of multiplying myself so I could feel like I was always a part of more than I really was."

Meanwhile, Danny's parents seem to be coming apart at the seams. While they've always kept secrets from him, there is definitely something major they're hiding. First he finds a taped-up box of old letters and files about a powerful California family, and he doesn't understand how they could be connected to his parents. After his father loses his job for reasons Danny only suspects, his mother becomes utterly unhinged, and after taking dramatic steps, Danny learns that there is so much he doesn't know, or understand, about his parents.

What do we do when we aren't sure we can count on those we care about the most? Is it better to find out the truth and face disappointment, or bite the bullet and see what happens? How can we make people understand the decisions we make in a split second, even if some people might get hurt in the process? Picture Us in the Light strives to answer those questions, while taking us into the mind, heart, and psyche of a complex, flawed, but loving teenager.

Even though I didn't always understand their motivations, I loved the flaws and fragility of these characters. Gilbert did a great job at capturing the jumble of anxieties, moods, fears, and victories of the typical teenager, and then she adds another layer by incorporating the extra level of pressure that Asian parents often put on their children to succeed. Quite often you feel this book in your heart, and there is a lot of emotion to be felt here.

At times I wished that Gilbert could have focused the story on Danny and his friends without the added confusion of his parents' storyline. There was so much in this book that occurred because no one would tell anyone how they truly felt, express their fears or anxieties, or ask probing questions to understand what was going on. Imagine what it was like to constantly have the characters step back from divulging a secret, asking a question, or saying how they felt. While it made the conclusion perhaps a little sweeter, it took a while for things to move.

Despite my challenges, I still found this to be a beautiful, poignant story that I can't seem to get out of my head. I wouldn't mind a sequel, honestly, because I grew attached to Danny, his friends, and family, and would love to see where life takes them.

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