Book Review: The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

“Today is my last chance to try to convince someone – or fate – to help me find a way to stay in America.
To be clear: I don’t believe in fate. But I’m desperate.” 

High school senior Natasha has just twelve hours to find a way to keep her family from being deported to Jamaica. Daniel knows his Korean immigrant parents expect a lot of him; suit-clad, he’s on his way to a college admissions interview, on a train speeding him toward what he calls “adulthood (misery, predictability, absolutely no fun will be had by anyone)”. She’s a cool science nerd, and he’s a poet.

One chance encounter in New York City. One day. This isn’t your ordinary girl-meets-boy.

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Intrepid readers, I am so excited to share this book with you all. It’s a book that deserves all of the hype that’s surrounded it since its release in November. Fate and physics converge in this intricately unfolding explosion of stories that highlight the intensity and interconnectedness of human lives.

Stories, Interwoven

The most striking part of The Sun is Also a Star is the surprising significance of its minor characters. The book is written in alternating perspectives between Daniel and Natasha, as well as the passersby who – by their own minute gestures, bearing the weight of their own stories – impact the protagonists’ lives in extraordinary ways. The receptionist. The street musician. The minor characters, consecrated two pages at most, show just how closely entwined we are to those who seem fleeting and anonymous. You could call Daniel and Natasha’s meeting, and their blossoming love story meant to be (if you’re like Daniel) – or, if you’re a Natasha, a series of pure, unpredictable, remarkable coincidences.

A Swift, Vibrant Book

One of the greatest strengths of this love story is Yoon’s talent for tantalizing pacing. The reasons for the deportation become gradually more apparent to the reader, the stakes becoming more powerful. This allows the focus to remain on Daniel and Natasha’s brightly painted personalities.

Would-be Casanova Shakes Cute Girl’s Hand, Offers Her Home Loan with Reasonable Interest Rate
I shook her hand. I’m wearing a suit and a tie and I shook her hand.
What am I? A banker?” 

The voices for each protagonist were as vivid as the explosive cover. Natasha’s frank, independent, and smart as a whip. Driving much of the humor in the book, Daniel calls his older brother “a giant bag of dicks that I’d like to light on fire.” (Note to self: Use that insult on someone if the need arises.) Together, their brilliant, though not immediate, chemistry is unmistakable.

Interracial Romance

A “diverse book” shines with characters’ cultural identities aren’t the primary source of conflict, but a nuanced context of their interactions. Likewise, Natasha and Daniel experience the universal high of first love – but also address the less rosy realities of interracial relationships in the United States. I don’t want to comment on many specifics about the love story because there are too many unpredictable turns. But throughout their blossoming love, neither character is oblivious to their identities as immigrants (Natasha) or first-gen Americans (Daniel); Yoon’s finely drawn portrayal of interracial romance develops the dimensions not only of the relationship, but of each character – particularly Daniel, who is apprehensive of his parents’ racism and disapproval of his relationship with a Black girl.

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On Charles Jae Won Bae and Ethnic-Identity Pride

Oddly, I was so fascinated by this other, slightly more prominent secondary character. Since I can’t resist tying my YA lit to academic literature on adolescents, I’d like to develop on another presence in the book: Daniel’s “bag of dicks” older brother, and his relationship to Korean culture.

A charismatic Harvard student, Charles is, by all quantitative measures, the successful son. He’s also a diabolical egotist who makes his little’s brother’s life miserable. Unlike Daniel, he rejects his Korean name. He refuses to eat Korean food and only dates white girls. He claims to despise everything Korean.

When you get over how EVIL he is at first blush, Charles is an intriguing study of ethnic pride in first-gen and young immigrant adolescents. Human development scholar Tzu-fen Chang and her team identify ethnic-identity pride as positive, affirmative feelings toward one’s ethnic group belonging. Their 2015 study of Korean American adolescents finds that ethnic identity, often fostered by parental relationships, is a major protective factor for psychological problems. In other words, having pride in one’s ethnic identity instills a sense of self-worth that can ward off other psychological harms, like the stress of racism, or negotiating culture while living in a majority-white community.

Charles’s tendencies can be read as frustrated attempts to reject his Korean heritage in favor of a white American identity. Trying to understand the Bae family through the lens of ethnic pride leads readers to consider the hatred that Charles seethes toward Daniel could signify more than just unprompted animosity.

Charles deserves all the insults lobbed at him, but makes for an incredibly well-drawn almost sympathetic antagonist.

Last Take

I read this over the Thanksgiving holiday and cried in front of my boyfriend’s extended family. But it’s just that captivating. It’s deserving of its National Book Award nomination. It deserves to be in every library in the country. My only complaint, really, is that it had to end.

With carefully illustrated portrayals of two American teenagers, and the thronging universe around them, Nicola Yoon’s The Sun is Also a Star is a beautifully woven celebration of the ways we love (as parents, siblings, partners, passersby) – and the intense joy and tragedy that our love entails.

Chang, T. F., Han, E. J., Lee, J. S., & Qin, D. B. (2015). Korean American adolescent ethnic-identity pride and psychological adjustment: Moderating effects of parental support and school environment. Asian American Journal of Psychology, 6(2), 190-199.
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6 thoughts on “Book Review: The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

  1. This review is so beautiful. It has definitely made me resolved to read it at some point in the new year. I also love how how you’ve included a scholar’s perspective on ethnic-pride.

    Charles actually sounds like people I’ve met who adamantly embraced the assimilated culture to the point of mostly rejecting their parent’s culture because they found their relationship to their parent’s culture to be uncomfortable and distant in a white majority context. Although they weren’t as extreme as Charles (regarding bullying, which they did not participate in but probably experienced).

    I appreciate how this book sounds true to life in both its grey and beautiful bright moments, so it’s a must read for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ethnic-identity pride is so fascinating because, to some measure, I think we all know a Charles (or even, for some, can relate to Charles ourselves)! This is exactly the kind of sociocultural/moral complexity that I love reading about in authentic narratives with immigrant-origin protagonists. The gray areas that Yoon illustrates are something that I believe real adolescents notice, too, but hardly have the opportunity to read about in most mainstream YA. Do let me know what you think when you read it! I always appreciate the thoughtfulness in your book reviews.

      Like

    • TSIAS radically reminded me of the power of story in a way that a book hadn’t in a while, so I felt like I had to do my best to share its impact. I am so moved that you enjoyed it, too! And I truly appreciate your warm, kind words 🙂

      Like

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