My Summary: Daniel is a dreamer on his way to a Yale interview that he doesn’t actually care about to please his Korean parents. Natasha is a science geek who is about to be deported to a Jamaica she barely remembers. The lives of these two teens who appear to have nothing in common collide, and both are changed in ways they never would have imagined during the course of a single day.
First of all, can I just talk about how groundbreaking this novel is? A YA romance novel with a Black girl and Asian boy as the main characters/pairing? This kind of pairing is as rare in real life as it is in fiction. Studies looking at data from dating sites and marriage records have found Black female/Asian male as the least common match among heterosexual couples, and this has a lot to do with the way normative ideas of sexuality are gendered and racialized in our society.
Historically, Asian men have been portrayed and viewed by white Americans as sexually inferior and even asexual. This stereotype came about as a result of early Chinese immigrant men taking on jobs that were considered women’s work. This did not happen naturally or by accident. In order to appease white laborers whose job security was threatened by the cheap labor of Chinese immigrants, the government passed laws restricting the types of work that Chinese men could legally pursue, thus relegating them to “feminized” jobs like laundry, cooking, etc.
For Black women, the stereotype goes the other way: they are hypersexual. This stereotype has its origins in the days of slavery. Under slavery, Black people’s status was a function of their “utility” as laborers. Black women were not only agricultural laborers but also responsible for the reproductive labor of producing more slaves, so they were treated as “breeders.” In general, the stereotype of Black people as hypersexual was used to dehumanize them and compare them to animals, thus justifying their oppression and exploitation by white people.
So, between these two extremely loaded stereotypes, the Asian male/Black female pairing becomes the ultimate “mismatch.”
Thankfully, The Sun Is Also A Star turns racial and gender stereotypes on their heads. Daniel is not the science person, Natasha is. He’s the one who’s idealistic to the point of being naive, and she’s the one who’s practical to a fault. Instead of him mansplaining stuff to her, she gets to be the one who educates and impresses him. And she’s a tough sell on the ideas he peddles on love. But miraculously, yet also believably, these two starkly different teens start to connect and appreciate each other over the course of the day.
So, I’m usually the type who doesn’t buy insta-love type romances (because it’s usually just insta-lust), but this book was different. Well, first of all, they didn’t go gaga for each other at first sight. Secondly, the circumstances under which they met were unusual. And more importantly, they had reasons to fall over the other person, given their respective personalities and situations.
Here’s my take on it: Natasha is usually a practical person, but she’s in a very desperate situation in which she needs hope and faith to give her strength to face the future. Daniel, the idealist, provides that, and he makes her laugh, which is therapeutic for her in her time of high stress. On Daniel’s end, he’s used to keeping his head down and going along with what his parents expect of him while hoping for a way out to pursue what he really enjoys. Along comes Natasha, who is unapologetic about who she is and is willing to do anything possible to get the thing she needs and wants the most. Her example inspires him to be more true to himself. They both learn something from each other.
So what makes this book work for me?
Characterization is a major component. Natasha and Daniel really jump off the page at me. Nicola Yoon really has characterization and narrative voice down to an art. All of the little details: the things they like, their appearance, their speech patterns, their body language, their thoughts, their quirks, their habits, their ways of responding to different situations, etc.–all of these build them into unique and believable and real characters. And they make very real teenagers. They’re smart and thoughtful but also young and inexperienced, and it really shows in their narration.
I also enjoyed the structure of the book, which isn’t the typical linear, single point-of-view narrative. Aside from the alternation between two first person perspectives, there’s also intermittent passages from other characters’ point of view and a third person omniscient narration that provides background information on subjects relevant to the story. The snippets from the minor characters’ viewpoints function to connect the dots between the lives of the characters and illustrate how much of an impact people can have on one another. Cause and effect aren’t just a straight line but rather a complex web of events that are inextricably linked, even for total strangers. The more factual passages are informative but also entertaining. What I really appreciate about these passages is that they render knowledge that seems esoteric more accessible to a general audience because of its relevance to characters that the readers are emotionally invested in.
Another thing I liked about the book was the way race was handled. Natasha and Daniel were not token, throwaway diversity props. Their race and ethnicity informed their identities in important ways but didn’t constrain them, so they felt authentic without being stereotypical. The narrative also explicitly addressed the existence of stereotypes, and how it feels to be stereotyped by someone or stereotype someone. There was unflinching recognition of antiblackness in Korean American communities, despite the history of economic interdependence between Korean Americans and Black Americans in cities like Los Angeles and New York City.
In particular, I appreciate the fact that race is historicized and contextualized through the informative factual passages. The sociopolitical history and symbolism of natural hair is explained, and the origins of Korean American domination of a market catering to Black communities is also revealed. These passages show that what is personal to these characters is also political, implicated in systems larger than themselves, with repercussions beyond individual interactions. In an era where race is increasingly viewed and taught through a superficial, decontextualized lens, thus allowing institutional racism to go unchecked, stories like this are an important educational tool for the younger generation.
My other reasons for loving The Sun Is Also A Star are more personal. Daniel is a character I can empathize with well because I’m also a second generation Asian American. That pressure to achieve the American Dream is too real for people like us. Even when your parents don’t give you direct pressure, you still feel obligated to make their sacrifices and investment worth it. Although I didn’t mention it in my About paragraph because it wasn’t really relevant to my blog, I also completed a degree in aerospace engineering and it wasn’t until about 3/4 of the way through it that I truly confronted the fact that I didn’t feel passionate about it even though I thought I should (just as Daniel feels about being a doctor). It was interesting and challenging, for sure, but it wasn’t my One True Calling. And right now, even though I completed a degree in something else that I did enjoy, I’m still struggling to reconcile my practical and idealistic sides. I’m not a poet, but I write fantasy novels, so I’m in the same boat as Daniel.
Natasha, despite having a different racial background and relationship with immigration/generational status, is also someone I can relate to a lot. The reason I decided to major in aerospace engineering was not because my parents wanted me to but because I genuinely loved science as a kid. I was that person who dressed up as an inventor for costume days at school, checked out every book the library’s children’s section had on astronomy, and devoured biographies of people like Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, and George Washington Carver. I was That Person who would undermine jokes by pointing out the technical inaccuracies in the setup. (And, to an extent, I’m still that person. I still find science fascinating and excel at technical work, I just don’t want to do it as my job is all.) On top of that, I have also known the desperation and despair of situation that’s out of my control.
The final reason I loved this book was the ending. It wasn’t a fairy tale ending, but it was satisfying all the same. It was at once realistic but hopeful, striking a perfect balance between the two. My inner idealist/romantic was crying with joy when I read the last page.
If there is one thing that I didn’t like about the book, it’s the part where Daniel followed Natasha to the store because that’s basically stalking, which shouldn’t be excused/romanticized. But barring that, The Sun Is Also A Star was amazing.
Recommendation: Read it, have your heart broken, feel the feels, go!
P.S. The cover is a Work of Art. Dominique Falla is a gift.
P.P.S. Did anyone else notice/find it cute that Natasha and Daniel’s names start with the same letters and Nicola and her husband David’s names? This can’t be a coincidence…