[Note: This review contains major spoilers.]
Don’t be surprised if you find Jay Asher’s newest YA novel on your teenager’s Christmas wish list this year. Asher’s first novel, “Thirteen Reasons Why,” is still a bestseller as it approaches its 10th anniversary. His new book, “What Light,” is also proving highly popular, although it represents a major tonal shift from his dark debut book. Though it touches on some tough issues as well, “What Light” is more in the vein of a Hallmark Channel Christmas movie.
Our protagonist, Sierra, lives most of the year in Oregon, where her parents own a Christmas tree farm. She and her family spend every December selling the trees at their own lot in California. Sierra loves working at the lot, and is worried that her family might not be able to keep it going for another year, as financial troubles mean that they might have to resort to selling only to supermarkets and other people’s tree lots. But that’s not her only worry.
Notorious among her friends for being too picky about guys, Sierra was of course destined to fall for someone a little less than suitable. Not that Caleb seems like a bad guy — quite the contrary. He buys Christmas trees for families in need with the tips that he earns working as a waiter; he shares Sierra’s taste for peppermint mochas and teasing banter; and he has a cute dimple. But Sierra’s friend Heather warns her that there are some scary rumors going around about Caleb. Suddenly struggling with deep feelings for a boy she’s not sure she can trust, Sierra has some difficult decisions to make.
Though it’s so much lighter and fluffier than “Thirteen Reasons Why,” “What Light” has one or two troubling elements of its own. Several years before, as Caleb eventually reveals to Sierra, his parents’ divorce and his sister’s relentless taunting made him “snap” and chase his sister with a knife, stabbing her closed bedroom door repeatedly. As a result, his sister moved away to live with their father, some of Caleb’s closest friendships were broken, and many people in his community still don’t trust him — prompting Sierra to start confronting them. He has clearly suffered the consequences of his actions, and is doing his best to atone for them, including apologizing and mending his relationship with his sister. He also attends church regularly and appears to be sincere in his Christian faith.
It’s hard not to feel at times, though, that Asher is overcompensating by transforming Caleb into a perfect, selfless saint, and that sending Sierra into his life to be his rescuer and advocate is a little too pat a solution to his troubles. As some of the reviewers on the book’s Amazon page have pointed out, it’s all too easy for teenage girls to fall into the trap of believing that they’ve been sent to save a “bad boy” with violent tendencies, only to find themselves in over their heads. Stories like this — however innocently and unintentionally — can build up that myth and become a factor in some very bad real-life decisions.
To say all this is not to deny the value of stories of redemption. Such stories are obviously based on a very real and powerful human need, and they can give hope to everyone who needs redemption — which is, of course, all of us. It might be helpful, though, if more authors made the effort to separate redemption from romance, especially teen romance. Too many YA novelists are prone to frame the need for salvation as the need for a loving, understanding girlfriend or boyfriend. Even though Asher doesn’t fully commit to such a narrative — Caleb has obviously found other positive redemptive forces, including his faith and family, before Sierra came along — there are enough echoes of it here to warrant a little caution.
There are few other content problems in this book — no sexual activity apart from kissing, and only the occasional mild profanity. The story is sometimes a little tedious, but probably not tedious enough to deter starry-eyed young readers. But if you do buy “What Light” for your teenagers, be aware of the potential dangers and make sure to discuss these with them.
Review copy obtained from Amazon. Image copyright Razorbill.
Gina Dalfonzo is editor of BreakPoint.org and Dickensblog.