Here’s a list of a few things I generally can’t stand in books, plays, movies, and other media: Magical realism; absurdism; lots of philosophizing; instalove; narrative gimmicks. So I have to admit, I went in to both Still Life With Tornado by A.S. King and The Sun Is Also A Star by Nicola Yoon with a fair amount of skepticism. While some of my dislikes were reinforced and I wasn’t a huge fan of either bok, in the end I was pleasantly surprised by both novels, and ended up enjoying both of them more than I expected after the first few chapters.
The Sun Is Also a Star is a contemporary realistic romance by the author of Everything, Everything. I enjoyed most of Yoon’s debut novel, up until a large final twist, so I was unsurprised to find two well-developed, likeable but flawed, and very realistic teenage characters at the heart of The Sun Is Also A Star. Natasha is a science-minded undocumented immigrant fighting to stay in the country on the day of her deportation when she meets Daniel, a romantic, idealistic poet struggling against his family’s expectations for his future. The whole novel takes place over the course of a day as Daniel works to make Natasha fall in love with him (I swear this isn’t as creepy as it sounds,) Natasha fights her deportation and her feelings for Daniel, and The Universe pops in its own narration with details and stories about the people they encounter throughout the day.
When I read the first few Universe chapters, I was sure they would be everything I hated about narrative gimmicks – pointless, an attempt at being literary that is trying too hard, and ultimately a distraction from the main story. But I grew to like them, and enjoy the feeling that although this story was Natasha and Daniel’s, everyone else in the book had their own stories too. I also, as I mentioned, loved Natasha and Daniel both as characters. While I found Daniel annoying sometimes, he was so realistic it made for a better story, and I loved almost everything about Natasha. I also really appreciated that the story didn’t shy away from the fact that, while both characters were struggling, Natasha’s experiences as an undocumented immigrant were on a different level of difficult and life-changing than Daniel’s decisions about his family and his future. Unfortunately, I kept getting pulled out of the characters and the story by two big things. First of all, the instalove. Daniel basically falls for Natasha as soon as he sees her, and they both apparently fall madly in love with each other over a span of approximately 12 hours. I remember how intense romance was as a teenager, and I still didn’t find this believable. Also unbelievable? The sheer amount of coincidences in this story. From pointless coincidences in side-plots – like the fact that Natasha almost gets killed by the same drunk driver who crashes into her lawyer – to major coincidences like the identity Daniel’s interviewer and the big coincidence at the end, it just felt like too much. In fact, as much as I usually shy away from magical realism, I think this story could have benefited from a full embrace of magical realism, since the level of coincidence, instalove, and plot twists made it impossible for me to buy into the story as contemporary realistic fiction.
Moving on, Still Life With Tornado is an actual magical realism novel with elements of absurdism featuring Sarah, age 16, who is having an existential crisis that she is trying to sort through with Sarah, age 10, Sarah, age 23, and Sarah, age 40. I spent the first several chapters complaining to anyone who would listen about the book. I was constantly annoyed with Sarah’s obsession with being “original” and her clear failure to see or understand – or even really care about – anything going on around her. But the book did grow on me as Sarah started to grow and change. As the story goes on, Sarah, who has been cutting school and experimenting with, among other things, not showering and following around a homeless man, starts to dive into the history of herself and her family. Through her own endless and often repetitive thoughts, her conversations with her other selves, a reconciliation with her estranged brother, and occasional points of view from her mother, we start to see the events that have led up to Sarah’s current crisis and the shattering of her family.
The parts of this book that worked for me were the exploration of the family relationships. In fact, my favorite parts were Sarah’s mother’s point of view, not the least because it got us out of Sarah’s very narrow, obnoxiously philosophical, and self-centered world view. I also started disliking Sarah less as the story went on – I still found her pretentious, but her circular thinking and self-centeredness made more sense as I learned more about her family history. But ultimately, I found the whole conceit of multiple Sarahs to be pointless and distracting. The flashbacks employed in some chapters were a better way to see into Sarah’s past, and I didn’t find that the glimpses into her future added much. Not only that, but the constant repetition of words and ideas, part of the tornado motif, annoyed me and made me feel that the story and character growth were constantly bogged down.
While I did grow to like Still Life With Tornado more than I expected to at the beginning, my winner is The Sun Is Also A Star – despite its faults, I found that the well-drawn characters, compelling immigration storyline, and well-paced plot were more than enough to draw me in and make me really enjoy the book.