Picture Us in the Light
by Kelly Loy Gilbert
18-year-old Danny Chang, the main character of Kelly Loy Gilbert's amazingly touching new YA novel Picture Us in the Light, is a high school senior dealing with even more tension and conflict than usually comes with that position. He has the usual tensions too, of course – he has applications out to colleges, including his first hope, the Rhode Island School of Design (Danny is an artist), and even if he gets accepted, that would mean leaving the world he's known and leaving all his friends behind, including his best friend Harry. But Danny's tensions have deeper dimensions: his parents are thoroughly devoted to him, but he hasn't always been their only child: there was a sister who's now gone and about whom his parents are resolutely vague – and in addition to that, Danny has deep, burstingly chaotic feelings for Harry that he's certain aren't reciprocated (Danny has a girlfriend, and he bristles at Danny's curiosity about the depth of their romance).
And there's a darker worry running underneath it all, some deeper secret his parents are concealing. Danny clearly doesn't want to think about it, but he's a smart kid, and the clues are all around him. Gilbert does a wonderful job of giving readers a convincing portrait of a teenager being pulled in half a dozen directions and trying to hold order in his bare hands:
My worst fear about my family was that maybe I would never be enough to make up for what they'd lost, that I wasn't supposed to be the ones who'd lived, and that they'd wind up broken in a way I couldn't put back together … I could see a future where my family never stopped being a grayer, paler, more trembling version of ourselves, and by then I couldn't shake the possibility that maybe my fate, all our fates, had been sealed before I was even born when my sister died. It wasn't hard to see how our future could get swallowed by the past.
“You live with someone so closely – you share toothpaste and soap and loads of laundry, and all your thoughts and dreams and private shames and secret hopes tumble back and forth across each other over and over in the five hundred square feet they're trapped in,” Danny reflects in one of his many tortured internal monologues, “and you never think someone could hide so much of themselves.”
Some of the elements of that deeper mystery will strike some readers as more than a bit contrived; once it's seen in the clear, the story of Danny's parents seems a bit ham-handed, more a plotting oddity than an organic construction. But any strain placed on the book's narrative by this kind of melodramatics is completely removed the book's most arresting plot-strand: the friendship between Danny and Harry. Danny treasures that friendship (“Not everyone gets this: someone who'll drop everything for you, no questions asked. I know how lucky I am”), but he also privately yearns for it to be something else, something he's sure it will never be: he's in love with Harry, and Gilbert captures to pitch-perfection the combination of joy and desperation it makes Danny feel. There's contrivance here too, particularly in the book's final pages, but it's all so baldly honest that it mainly leaves a feeling of exhilaration.
Picture Us in the Light is refreshingly complex, and Danny is a character readers will remember. The book is significantly more rewarding even than Conviction, Gilbert's genuinely impressive 2015 debut.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.