Book Review: What Light by Jay Asher

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I went back and forth on this, because I genuinely hate leaving bad reviews for authors, particularly authors whose past work I’ve admired. In this one though- I think it’s important that parents/educators get a heads up about some of the messaging. There will be spoilers below, so please stop reading if you’re uncomfortable with that

This book centers around the romance between Sierra, whose parents run a Christmas tree lot that takes her to California for a month each season, and Caleb- a boy she meets with a shady past. We learn pretty quickly that Caleb’s past centers around badly reacting to his parents divorce in a way that made him once run after his sister with a knife, and begin stabbing her bedroom door. We’re told over and over again that this was an accident, that he never *really* meant to hurt his sister, and that he’s a charming nice guy who needs to be given a second chance.

I wonder if Mr. Asher ever considered how toxic a message that is to write for an audience of primarily teenage girls: That a boy who went into a violent rage could be charming and kind in spite of it, and that warning messages from her parents and friends can be ignored if he seems like a really good guy underneath it. Teen dating violence is an issue that puts (mostly) young women at risk, and I really dislike that this narrative centers around ignoring some pretty real warning signs of problems in the name of romance. Sierra also seemed to only exist as a character to fix Caleb’s problems- she was a pretty boring blank slate of a character, overly preoccupied with fixing everything for a boy who she had just met, knew had a violent past, and immediately jumped into fixing.

All of the characters aside from Caleb, including Sierra seemed like hollow stereotypes- especially her friends. Their relationships seemed like exactly what they were: and adult man’s impression of what teenage girl friendships are like. (Mostly centered around boys and shopping, with a little fake and overwrought drama)

It also meandered- for a book that was meant to take place over a four week period, I feel like I lost a year of my life. I had to force myself to keep reading several times.

I feel like the story Mr. Asher really wanted to tell was Caleb’s- and it’s a real shame his editor didn’t help him center the book around him, rather than making it a book about a girl who makes this boy the center of her world, immediately and without any judgment about possible repercussions.

I wouldn’t recommend, and if your daughter/student reads this- I’d probably try and layer in a conversation about the risks of dating violence, of warning signs, of girls not trying to do all the emotional work of “saving” a boy… and I’d try and get them to read some of the books about this topic.

13 Reasons Why did a good job in some cases of explaining how rape culture can hurt a teenage girl over time. This one made a girl taking on all the emotional burdens of a boy’s bad judgement into a romance and encouraged girls to ignore real warnings signs that a boy could be violent and a threat to them.

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