I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson is a literary work of genius. This is one I read quite a while ago, but it has stayed with me and remains one of my favorites. It's riveting and powerful without seeming forced or contrived in any way. It's the story of twins, Jude and Noah, whose lives are drastically, irreparably altered by a catastrophic event. The entire story shapes itself around that event and their quest to find themselves functioning on the other side.
Let's talk about structure first. Both twins have narrative rights, and they each have a very distinct story to tell. One of the things I loved was how unique the two voices were. Noah talks in images, constantly interpreting the world through colors and visual analysis. When he sees a boy who had been his friend, he thinks: "I spot him following Courtney up a stair case, watch him as he razors through the crowd, nodding his head to guys, returning the smiles of girls, like he belongs. How is it he belongs everywhere? (PORTRAIT: The boy with All the Keys in the World with All the Locks)" (Nelson 126). Noah sees the world in colors and shapes, and his perspective is tender and acutely perceptive: "...then colors start flooding into me: not through my eyes but right through my skin, replacing blood and bone, muscle and sinew, until I am redorangebluegreenpurpleyellowred-orangebluegreenpurpleyellow" (Nelson 202).
Jude is also an artist, but she is much more direct in her thoughts and narration. She is superstitious, but she does not dwell in abstraction as often as Noah. When told that she cannot eat a donut without moaning, she considers her condition: "No time to dwell, though. Guillermo and Oscar are giving the show before them--me--their undivided attention. How did I get into this? Tentatively, I lift the donut to my mouth. I take a small bite and despite the fact that all I want to do is close my eyes and moan a porn soundtrack, I resist" (185). Nelson knows her characters inside and out, and she lets each of them speak with clarity and with distinct perspective. The fact that Jude and Noah each get to work through the grief process through their own lenses and using their own voices makes the entire story more powerful and captivating. The structure also takes on a "before/ after" approach that moves seamlessly between the present and the past, revolving around a critical event that profoundly affects the lives of the twins.
Another thing that I LOVE about this novel is the scope. Nelson takes on some heavy, complex subjects, and she does it with grace and delicacy, never oversimplifying or making things seem binary. Nelson takes on loss, grief, guilt, adultery, sexual assault, and suicide all within a captivating work with an intricate plot line that webs together beautifully. Though the topics are heavy and dramatic, the characters never feel melodramatic or insincere.
Perhaps the best part of the novel (though it's certainly debatable--there are so many awesome parts) is the way that Nelson portrays all of the characters (even the ones we don't get to know well) with tenderness and compassion. They are fully human--they do horrible things sometimes, and they hurt the people they love. They keep secrets and tell lies. They lie to themselves and to each other. And yet, she shows how beautiful they are and how deeply they love. And she shows the power of hope and of forgiveness. She shows how people can, despite all odds, help each other heal.
The Gilded Wolves opens in a late 1800s Paris imbued with magic. An established crew of diverse characters successfully has completed a series of missions and is, at the novel’s beginning, in the midst of another. In this world, certain people are adept at Forging, a sort of magical engineering, and a circle of Houses control the world. Each House represents a different facet of magic connected to fragments of the Tower of Babel.
The novel moves between several perspectives. Séverin, the leader of the crew, has been cast out of the wealth and power associated with his line, the House of Vanth. He was raised in a series of foster homes, each dominated by a father who represented one of the seven deadly sins. With him through his childhood was Tristan, his foster brother, who relied on Séverin’s strength to help him survive each home. Next is Laila, a seductive, mysterious, and skilled woman from India who maintains an alternate identity as L’Egnime. Then comes Zofia, a brilliant Forger and victim of anti-Semitism whose objective approach to her world, including insight into numerical patterns, points toward some positioning on the autism spectrum. From the Philippines, Enrique, the final member of the group, can’t Forge but who makes up for his lack of ability with a dedication to history that informs many of their missions.
Each character has a distinct goal through the narrative, separate from the treasure they seek together, and each has a signature characteristic that acts as a sort of flag through the novel: Séverin, for example, chews cloves, Tristan has a gigantic tarantula that horrifies his friends, and so on. While these traits set the characters apart, they do at times seem to stand in for deeper development of individual characters. In general, The Gilded Wolves, in comparison with Chokshi’s other works, relied more on explicit explanation, on telling more than showing. This was, I think, in service of the plot, and Chokshi certainly devoted space to characters’ back stories, but I found myself wishing that the characterization were more nuanced.
As in all heist narratives, certain plot points require great suspension of disbelief: characters are able to foretell other characters’ actions with great accuracy or make speculative leaps just in time to allow their plan to continue. I am, as I said, all in for heists, so I happily suspended my disbelief and just went with it. The book’s fast-moving, compelling plot centers on a series of McGuffins that lay the groundwork for the next novel but are ultimately unimportant in comparison to the group dynamics at the book’s center.
The strength of the central crew and the solid heist plot make up for some shortcuts in other elements of the book. Overall, therefore, I’d recommend The Gilded Wolves, which has magic and Paris and humor and romance and vivid historical touches . . . plenty of good content for this compelling, fun YA read.
A Note from Ashley, Jen, and Sara
We're pleased to share some of our book reviews with you all here. Note that the title of the post also indicates the author of the review. The books reviewed are linked for purchase.