Title: What Light
Author: Jay Asher
Publisher: Razorbill (Penguin)
Time taken to read: 2 days
Goodreads synopsis: Sierra’s family runs a Christmas tree farm in Oregon—it’s a bucolic setting for a girl to grow up in, except that every year, they pack up and move to California to set up their Christmas tree lot for the season. So Sierra lives two lives: her life in Oregon and her life at Christmas. And leaving one always means missing the other. Until this particular Christmas, when Sierra meets Caleb, and one life eclipses the other. By reputation, Caleb is not your perfect guy: years ago, he made an enormous mistake and has been paying for it ever since. But Sierra sees beyond Caleb’s past and becomes determined to help him find forgiveness and, maybe, redemption. As disapproval, misconceptions, and suspicions swirl around them, Caleb and Sierra discover the one thing that transcends all else: true love.
I think everyone had pretty high expectations for this, since Thirteen Reasons Why was so iconic and great. I mean, when you think of YA as a genre, you think of that book. So I was really confused when I was about half of the way through What Light and I realized it was just not good. So, let’s jump right into all the reasons why.
I definitely want to talk about the minor characters, specifically Sierra’s three best friends, Rachel, Elizabeth, and Heather. I think if you take any of their quotes out of context, you won’t be able to tell which of the three girls it’s from, aside from, of course, any quote with specific identifiers. Maybe Elizabeth is slightly distinguishable–she’s a little more uptight than the other two. (And I don’t mean that in a negative way at all–I liked her better than Rachel and Heather for that reason.) But Rachel and Heather were absolutely interchangeable, and that was really disappointing. Other minor characters they’re painfully similar to include Caleb’s sister Abby and Jeremiah’s sister Cassandra. Cassandra’s just the angry version of the rest of the girls. Then there’s Andrew, whose only quality is being a dick, and Luis and Jeremiah, whose only qualities are being sullen and quiet and seemingly a little grumpy. And lastly, Sierra’s parents. Her dad is typically overly protective and just doesn’t want to see his little girl growing up, and her mom doesn’t totally agree but doesn’t want to upset her husband, because…I don’t even know why. Maybe he would get aggressive. Either way, these are boring, overdone parent characters, and I would like to see a more complicated family, please.
Next, the major characters and the plot. I feel like I can’t talk about Caleb and Sierra separately, because they really only exist in relation to each other. So Sierra starts off as the typical YA girl who has little interest in boys until the super hot guy shows up. Caleb appears with his dimples, which Sierra will not shut up about, and then she finds out that he attacked his sister with a knife and even that does not deter her from obsessing about the dimples. This is a little complicated for me because I’ve been in a similar situation, in which I was interested in a guy and then I found out he had one violent incident. I was disturbed but I heard him out, and I know it’s not really who he is. There are a few differences. 1. I knew him for longer than like a week, 2. He came to me with the story first, so I never felt like he was hiding anything, and 3. I’m a freak too, and I knew there were things that he’d also have to accept about me. Sierra is normal. Or at least, there are no indications of mental illness. I’m not the most knowledgeable about what it’s like to be a normal person, but I feel like that should have been a deal-breaker for her. (Are there any normal people out there who can weigh in on this?) And I really felt like Caleb needed to be more flawed. I know–is knife violence not enough of a flaw? But it’s not. Because nothing about present day Caleb is bad. He is charitable and attractive and kind. Sometimes he beats himself up too much about what happened when clearly everyone else in his family is over it, if you can call that a flaw.
And aside from whether or not she should have been interested in him, Caleb and Sierra’s relationship was so predictable when it really shouldn’t have been, and I don’t mean just because that’s not how books should be. I mean, I shouldn’t have expected them to be happily in love after four weeks of knowing each other, but I did. And then I realized that I did, and I was horrified. With the pacing and the language and all the cliches, you have to know what’s coming. I kept forgetting that they had only known each other for two, three, four weeks. They acted like they had been secretly eyeing each other across the hall at school for years or something like that. I really expected more from Sierra because she’s portrayed as very mature and sensible and logical, and she tries to tell herself that this relationship can’t last, but she doesn’t do a very good job of that, and I feel like that fact doesn’t add up with everything else we know about her. It made it hard for me to connect with her because I felt like we were set up with her personality and then given all this information that contradicted it. I don’t know. I mean, I partially get it. Teenagers are ridiculously influenced by possible mates (and so are adults). And if she was able to stick to her promise to herself that she wouldn’t get involved with anyone, there would be no story. But it just didn’t feel real.
I don’t normally suggest to not read a book, even if it’s not a good one, because you can learn a lot from bad books. But this story has been told so many times, I just don’t see it being worth it. Yeesh, this might be my longest review ever. Bless your heart if you read the whole thing. I hope you all are having a happy Thanksgiving full of self-love and self-care!