I celebrated a birthday this past December, and one of my gifts was a ParnassusNext subscription. This subscription service sends a beautifully packaged, signed, first-edition copy of a newly released young adult novel each month. My mom and I had curiously kept an eye on the subscription service since it first launched, but we weren't sure if having such a variety of books would be a fun adventure or a bad fit for me. I was so excited when I found December's subscription wrapped up for me, though, and I immediately began reading Jay Asher's What Light.
To start off, I've never read one of Asher's novels before. I bought a copy of what's largely considered his most famous book, Thirteen Reasons Why, from Parnassus a year ago, but I haven't tackled the book quite yet. Another important point to consider when reading my thoughts is that I've never been overly drawn to books that revolve around a romance. If I'm choosing my own book, I can nearly guarantee I won't come home with one that's a romance unless it's also science fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, etc. However, I'm always willing to expand my range of genres!
The novel revolves around Sierra, a 16-year-old whose parents own a Christmas tree farm. Her family lives in Oregon, where the grow their trees, but they annually spend a month (Thanksgiving to Christmas) in California while they sell their trees during the holiday season. Sierra is used to spending the season with her best friend in California, Heather, while still keeping in touch with her friends back home in between helping her parents run the family business. Just after Heather pleads for Sierra to find someone special so the friends can double-date over the holiday season, Caleb enters the narrative in the form of a customer at Sierra's family's farm, and Sierra instantly finds him swoon-worthy. Heather is clearly against the relationship, though, due to ubiquitous rumors on the darker parts of Caleb's past. Sierra can't help being drawn to the stranger, though, and finds herself struggling to discover who Caleb truly is while looking past the constant warnings she's receiving about Caleb from around every corner.
I could tell by the first couple of pages that the writing style wasn't going to be the saving grace of this book, and I knew the plot itself would need to carry the book for it to be a real page-turner. The sentences are overly simple, and the characters are the typical, cliché teenage girls we've all read about. Still, I had hope for the novel as I continued.
Sierra, the novel's main character, is a likable protagonist. She's a fitting balance between a novel's usual teenage star and someone with a bit of moxie. Caleb, who quickly becomes the potential love interest, is just about as enchanting as you can get. Though I didn't find myself tearing at the pages like a madwoman to see their relationship blossom, their connection made for an interesting read.
To quote the book's official synopsis, "By reputation, Caleb is not your perfect guy: years ago, he made an enormous mistake and has been paying for it ever since." While I won't be the person to spoil what this error was (this is a spoiler-free zone!), I will say it was a main component of the story, and rightfully so. Without that component, the novel would have been nothing more than a predictable and drab love story. However, with that being said, I do wish the fault was a bit better developed. Though a lot of time is dedicated to elaborating on the events before, after, and during the event, some of the reasoning was a bit shaky. Regardless, I still enjoyed the concepts of forgiveness and the long-lasting effects of a short lapse in judgement, because I think they're topics many people grapple with in real life.
Finally, one thing I loved about this novel was that though it was a romance, it wasn't solely based on physical affection. More often than not, fictional teen romances are nothing more than three hundred pages of passionate kisses and implied sex (because, for some reason, it's just too much for authors—especially young adult authors—to actually inscribe the word "sex"). This novel had a very well paced romance, especially for a story that took place over a month. Caleb and Sierra's relationship revolved far more around talking and spending time together than making out, and that's something I can always support.
All in all, I would rate What Light three stars out of five. I enjoyed the characters and approach to a romance even though the writing style was mediocre at best and some of the characters were brimming with banality. Though I didn't find myself awed by the story, and I wasn't left drooling over it far after I'd read the last page, it was one of the better romances I've encountered.