Picture Us in the Light, Reviewed by Julianna Reidell, 15

Book Reviews  /   /  By Sarah Ainsworth
Stone Soup Magazine
September 2018

A Picture of Perfection
Oftentimes, while reaching for the future, we are held captive by the experiences and memories of our past. Though we attempt to move on, leaving behind whatever fortunes or ills may have befallen us, our histories remain with us, influencing our every thought and action – and, occasionally, threatening our hopes for a brighter future. In order to attain a new, better existence, we must learn to reconcile with our pasts and move on, as best we can. This is certainly true of the complex cast of characters explored and developed throughout Kelly Loy Gilbert’s newest gripping, tender, and thought-provoking novel. Picture Us in the Light ensnares the reader with its touching, powerful insights on the human condition, including the loss of a friend through suicide and the powerful impact the choices of parents can have on their children, finally releasing them to consider the world around them with new eyes.

The focal narrative of Picture Us in the Light centers around Danny Cheng, an aspiring artist living a steady life with his Chinese immigrant parents in Cupertino, California, a small, predominantly Asian, high-pressure neighborhood. Danny, a high school senior, has recently been accepted into the Rhode Island School of Design, and – despite attempting to move on from the tragic death of one of his peers the previous year and striving to understand the true depth of his feelings for his best friend, Harry – his future appears bright. Upon the discovery of a box of files, containing extensive detail on a mysterious Silicon Valley businessman, hidden in his parents’ closet, however, Danny’s life takes a swift and sudden turn for the worse. Within a short time, as turmoil from within and without grips his family, Danny is forced to confront the fact that his parents – excellent secret-keepers, who have concealed everything from his father’s lost job to his deceased sister – have hidden from him something too large to keep buried forever.

Picture Us in the Light engrosses the reader not only through its fascinating, suspenseful narrative, but by several perceptions into human behavior – such as the tragedy of a death by suicide, and the strange and startling impact such a loss creates within a close community. Danny, at the commencement of the novel, is still startled and haunted by the loss of Sandra Chang, a fellow student, to suicide the year before; his friend Regina, who had been Sandra’s best friend, struggles all the more. In the aftermath of Sandra’s death, Danny, and his community of classmates, all grapple with a multitude of the same emotions: “When someone at your school dies by suicide it consumes you… the places you once believed were safe… feel hostile and fragile and uncertain” (129). While the students in Sandra’s grade remain shocked, tremulous, and uncertain, however, throughout the school and the larger Cupertino community, the fact of a death by suicide is never discussed, for fear it will lead to a copycat effect out of grief: “You aren’t allowed to post pictures or notes… and the family’s funeral is private” (129). This delicate, often unhealthy, balance between yearning to remember and express grief, coupled with the desperate need for discretion and the hope to avoid further deaths, is discussed and represented throughout the novel, as Danny, Regina, and their classmates each struggle as the one-year anniversary of Sandra’s death approaches. When Regina (whose parents also made her discard every photograph she possessed of Sandra in the aftermath of the loss), suggests writing a tribute article on the front page of the school’s paper, results are mixed. Though students who did not know Sandra as well are greatly uneasy, aware of the fact that such an article would surely be banned if brought to light before its publication, Danny is much more supportive, even drawing a portrait to accompany his friend’s article. When the article is released, despite overwhelmingly positive responses from friends who want to see Sandra remembered, both Regina and Danny are escorted to the principal’s office, where they are forced to enter a discussion about how, when, and where to speak out about a loss by suicide. Though the principal declares their tribute to be inappropriate for a school setting, both students are adamant in their thoughts: “Someone you grew up with dies… and you’re supposed to do what, exactly – feel proud that you’ve gotten over something you should really never get over?” (254). The issue of how to respond to a death by suicide has long been a controversial topic, and the cycle of shock, grief, and – finally – the beginnings of acceptance are discussed masterfully throughout the novel, as well as the question of when, and how, it is appropriate to remember the loved ones you have lost. As Regina declares, “Talking about suicide isn’t the same thing as glorifying it” (254) – for, as Picture Us in the Lightdeclares in empathetic, elegant fashion, in order to reach a new level of acceptance in the face of tragedy, one must confront it first, and find a way to remember their loved ones, no matter how they may have passed away.

In journeying further through the pages of Picture Us in the Light, the reader comes to be aware and startled not only by the profound effects of a loss by suicide, but by the clear impact the actions of parents, whether positive or negative, may have on their offspring for years to come. During Danny’s years of middle school, his father becomes severely depressed; Danny recounts that, “it was like all the color bled out… what was left was muted and dull… it’s a profoundly lonely feeling when someone who’s supposed to love you {can’t} be around you” (50). Within a short amount of time, Danny has begun to carry the weight of his troubled home life with him at all times: “I’d be sullen and quiet… at night lying awake I’d be guilt-stricken… it was draining” (64). In his pressured state of anxiety, he found himself resenting those around him: be it his parents, for not taking action, or Harry Wong, a wealthy boy who appeared to have everything: “My dad, who deserved a party and a celebration and happiness… instead {it} went to Harry, who’d done nothing to deserve it” (62); it is only after confiding in Harry that he begins to understand and befriend his former adversary, who faces his own challenges under his high-pressure parents, declaring, “…nothing {I} do is ever good enough anyway” (68). Whether through Harry’s parents, determined to ensure he is admitted into every Ivy League school, or Danny’s father struggling through a mental illness, both characters are heavily affected in their everyday performances by what has occurred in their homes. Parent-child relationships are further emphasized throughout the narrative as, partway through the book, the reader begins to experience chapters written, not from the point of view of narrator Danny, but centering around his sister, born in China and believed to be deceased. This narrative, scattered throughout the novel yet critically important to the plot, tells the story of Danny’s parents’ meeting, the birth of their first child, and how, slowly, their actions conspired to lead to her loss; as Danny’s mother, hyper-aware frightened of all the terrible fates in the world that could befall her child, “poisoned her faith in your permanence… made her surrender you before you were ever truly hers” (161), or how Danny’s father, desperate to accept an internship in America despite his elderly father and infant child, appeals to his wife in on his daughter’s behalf: “In the United States {she} could have siblings” (246). Eventually, both Mr. and Mrs. Cheng, their infant daughter “no match for their ambition”, concede to travel to America, together – leaving their offspring behind. This ultimate decision – to temporarily abandon their child in order to attain a better life – will lead to the loss of their daughter,and set in motion a chain of events highly influential, not only on their own lives and their lost daughter’s, but their eventual son’s as well – for decades to come.

Just as the act of embracing the future can never be completed without confronting the past, no reader can emerge, shaken, shocked, and hearted, from the pages of Picture Us in the Light without a greater awareness of a shared common humanity, experienced by all in every situations and across varying walks of life. The novel’s poignant perceptions related to friendship and family, loss and love, deeply affect and inspire the reader, catching them up and drawing them not only into the narrative and coming of age of Danny Cheng, but allowing them to view their own lives, the world and people around them, with different, sympathetic, eyes. Such as it was for me; for, in the past year I have not been so emotionally touched, affected, and inspired by any narrative as for the masterful novel Picture Us in the Light.

Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert. Disney-Hyperion, 2018. Buy the book here and support Children’s Art Foundation-Stone Soup in the process!

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