Book Review: THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR (2016) by Nicola Yoon
Updated: Jan 6
He thinks the universe destined them to meet; she thinks it was a cosmic coincidence. Can he convince her they were meant to be, even though they've just met? Nicola Yoon (author of Everything, Everything) explores the universe at work through the lives of two teenagers and the strangers they encounter in New York City.
The Summary (in my words):
When Daniel Bae and Natasha Kingsley meet in a record store--and then again minutes later, when Daniel saves Natasha from a crazy driver who runs a red light--they click instantly. Daniel thinks she's the most beautiful girl he's ever met and already finds himself falling for her. Scientifically-minded Natasha isn't nearly the hopeless romantic Daniel is. Determined to kill time before his Yale admission interview (which he is not looking forward to, much to his Korean parents' dismay), Daniel spends the day with Natasha so he can convince her their meeting was fated to happen. They're supposed to fall in love. The catch? Natasha's being deported back to Jamaica by the end of the day.
The characters: Both Natasha and Daniel are well-developed characters who play off each other well, despite being complete opposites. Their chemistry is undeniable.
I also love, love, love Daniel's confident yet humble personality and his witty, unapologetic sense of humor. Most notably, Daniel is a strong and masculine Korean-American lead, something we rarely see in books (or at least those I've read). Yoon flips the script by writing an Asian lead that is not passive, emasculated, or socially-awkward. He's utterly charming and handsome!
The multiple points of view: Most of this book is written in the alternating perspectives of Daniel and Natasha--but there are also third-person perspectives from family members, random characters they encounter, and historical accounts pertaining to the book. At first, it annoyed me. It slowed down the central plot. If I wanted to read about history, I would pick up a text book. It just felt heavy-handed at first. I honestly thought of abandoning the book a few chapters in because of how irritated I was.
But I'm so glad I didn't. As time went on, I realized what Yoon was trying to do: she was widening the scope of her novel. She was drawing attention to the fact that Daniel and Natasha live in this great, mystic, chaotic universe that can bring people together or tear them apart at any moment. They are merely moving parts in the grand scheme of things.
The Insta-Romance is actually convincing: I fell in love with Natasha and Daniel as much as they fell in love with each other. If no fiber of your being is a romantic, you probably won't like this book. If you're reading it anyway, go into it with a little bit of an imagination and optimism. Even I'm pretty skeptical of romance plot lines, especially if they progress too fast. While the objective is to fall in love in a single day, the progression of their romance is believable. There's instant attraction (particularly on his part), but also intentional self-disclosure that helps them get to know each other. In other words, Yoon does a great job of grounding their relationship.
It also helps that Natasha is so skeptical about romance. She holds back from Daniel, unwilling to give herself away to someone she's just met (at least at first, wink wink). She is the voice of reason for readers who resist falling in love. It's a perfect balance.
The Norebang (karaoke) scene: I can't. This scene is too cute and too much. It made my heart soar and my face blush.
The Depth: This is a story about more than two people who fall in love. This is a story about two immigrants who contemplate what it means to be American. What it means to forge your own identity, despite your parents' expectations on where you'll go to school, what you'll do with your life and who you'll marry.
It also addresses racism and preconceived notions. I admire Yoon's brave choice to display racism within minority groups. We're all inclined, after all, to think our culture and values are superior to others', whether we realize it consciously or not; Americans and white people are not the only ones guilty of this.
Solid. It's more colloquial than literary (which is perfectly fine), and both characters have strong, distinct voices.
The Ending (no spoilers, promise):
The ending gave me all sorts of emotions. Again, it's perfectly balanced. Realistic with a good does of wishful-thinking and philosophizing (our reminder that the universe is in control of our lives). It also gave me a lot to think about.
Things I'm processing after finishing the novel:
While Yoon does have some clear things to say, some of her thoughts seem morally ambiguous. Take Fitzgerald, Natasha's immigration attorney who has an affair with his paralegal (not central to the plot, so don't worry about this being too spoilery). Yoon alludes that his wife and kids will be pretty messed up after he abandons them, but there also seems to be this sense of, well, he did what he felt was right, so that's what's important. His decision to ditch work and get it on with his paralegal cost Natasha big time.
On one hand, I think Yoon is saying that the universe has a way of autocorrecting human mistakes. If Daniel and Natasha are supposed to be together, the universe will put them together. If she's deported, she'll eventually find her way back to Daniel.
I just can't tell if Yoon is dismissing the affair detail--if she's permitting poor decision-making because the universe will fix it eventually. There's even a scene where Fitzgerald tells Daniel that he should get his bad decisions out of the way while he's young (because dang, it's too bad he didn't meet his paralegal before the other woman he married). Do we have so little control of our lives that none of our decisions have consequences?
I also disagree with the whole universe-deciding-our-fate premise. Part of me is reminded that there is more to life than ourselves. We do not have full dominion of our lives. There is a higher power, a god, who commands our every interaction. While the world looks chaotic from our perspectives, scale it back, and you'll find the universe is quite orderly. Yoon doesn't point to a particular god or religion, but she seems close to finding God. It's reflected in the way her characters contemplate the existence of a god (a thoroughly interesting conversation, by the way).
The other part of me says this book is a tad new agey, just in how Yoon describes fate, coincidence, and the universe. While I disagree that "the universe" (an ambiguous, abstract higher power) is in charge of fate, I can't fault her for having a different set of beliefs than mine (my personal beliefs and convictions are probably more definitive than hers). However, I respect her ideas and how she addresses them. She doesn't force me to believe them. She gently proclaims, let's think about this together (what do we, humans really know anyway?). I felt very free to think for myself, which is more than I can say about several books.
My ranking (out of 5):
Regardless of our differing opinions, I'm giving Yoon's book a four. It would have been a five, had she not given some morally questionable advice to readers that encourages us to choose pleasure over sacrifice (as in Fitzgerald's case).
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[Fun fact, this was my yearbook quote for my senior year of high school, just like it was Cory and Topanga's. Whether we admit it or not, most of us want a Natasha and Daniel or Cory and Topanga kind of romance. Even if it seems silly and new agey and ridiculous. That's why this book hit such a soft spot for me.]