What is it about twins that makes them so magical, so mystical, so ripe for tragedy? Perhaps it is that they present the perfect foils, the yin and yang? In so many memorable works about twins, the otherworldliness of their connection to one another is often coexistent with their extreme differences. I harken back to Wally Lamb’s “I Know This Much Is True” and Abraham Verghese’s “Cutting for Stone.”
This juxtaposition, this presentation of twins as both two sides of a whole and yet near opposites, is deftly constructed in Jandy Nelson’s “I’ll Give You the Sun.” Here the twins are teenagers at two different points in their lives – 13 and 16. Like most teenagers and all good protagonists, they are inordinately complicated, surprisingly sophisticated, and deeply flawed. What makes their story even more engaging is how through their response to tragedy they reverse roles – remaining opposites by reversing polarity.
“So can you believe how weird I’ve gotten and how normal you’ve gotten?
“It’s astounding,” he says, which cracks us both up. “Except most of the time,” he adds, “I feel like I’m undercover”
“Me too.” I pick up a stick start digging with it. “Or maybe a person is just make up of a lot of people,” I say. “Maybe we’re accumulating these new selves all the time.” Hauling them in as we make choices, good and bad, as we screw up, step up, lose our minds, find our minds, fall apart, fall in love, as we grieve, grow, retreat from the world, dive into the world, as we make things, as we break things.
From the lens of feminism and women’s voices, Jandy Nelson sculpts Jude (the female twin) from a maquette who, when testing boundaries and exploring her emerging sexuality, risks becoming what her mother warningly refers to as “that girl“, to a confounding work in progress in which details are rare and emotions are masked, to a polished tour de force that recognizes and exudes feminine strength and grit. Jude is rawness and vulnerability built on unwavering toughness. Faced with the growing pains of true metamorphosis, she cries out to herself: “I want to play How Would You Rather Die? instead of figuring out how to live. But I can’t. I’m over being a coward. I’m sick of being on pause, of being buried and hidden, of being petrified, in both senses of the word.” And once she emerges from her battered chrysalis, she comes to realize:
“Maybe Mom was wrong about that girl after all. Because that girl spits on guys who treat her badly. Maybe it’s that girl who’s been missing. Maybe it’s that girl breaking her way out of that rock […]. Maybe it’s that girl who can see it’s not my fault […]. I didn’t bring the bad luck on us, no matter how much it felt that way. It brought itself. It brings itself. And maybe it’s that girl who’s now brave enough to admit […] what I did.”
“I’ll Give You the Sun” was a worthwhile experience; it held my attention and marked my memory. It is a young adult novel, and as often can happen in the genre, it may have lacked subtlety and hyperbolized drama at times. But, in the spirit of exploring women’s voices, this story made a notable contribution and painted a worthy portrait of a young woman finding herself, her voice, and her place in the world.