I received this book free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein
Published by Bloomsbury USA on June 2nd 2015
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From an exhilarating new voice, a stunning debut novel—which Jonathan Safran Foer calls as "lyrical as a poem, psychologically rich as a thriller."
The story of two lives that intersect ninety-five miles above the Arctic Circle, The Sunlit Night is written in prose so nimble it skips lightly atop the surface of the constantly illuminated landscape while exploring the depth and complexity of the human condition.
Shortly after her college graduation, Frances flees a painful breakup and her claustrophobic childhood home in Manhattan, which has become more airless in the aftermath of two family announcements: her parents' divorce and her younger sister's engagement. She seeks refuge in an apprenticeship at an isolated Norwegian artists' colony, but finds only one painter living there: Nils, an enigmatic middle-aged descendant of the Sami reindeer hunters who specializes in the color yellow.
Yasha, an eighteen-year-old Russian immigrant raised in a bakery in Brighton Beach, is kneading bread in the shop's window when he sees his mother for the first time in a decade. As he gains a selfish and unreliable parent, he loses his beloved father. He must carry out his father's last wish to be buried "at the top of the world" and reconcile with the charismatic woman who abandoned them both.
Frances's and Yasha's unlikely connection and growing romance fortifies them against the turmoil of their distant homes. They discover that to be alone is not always to be lonely, and that however far they travel for independence, it is ultimately love that gives them their place in the world.
This is a very unhappy, very long review, full of my eye-twitching adventures through the pages of Sunlit Night. Oh, and just a warning for those of you that frown upon gif-filled reviews? Run. Run while you still can.
I don’t derive any sort of pleasure from reading a book I hate. I don’t like hating books in general, but alas, it does happen. My 11-year-old asked me just last night, “Do you ever read a book and really don’t like it?” I laughed and told him, “Of course, you can’t expect to like every single book you read. Sometimes it can be poorly written, sometimes it can have characters that you just can’t understand, but yes, there are books I’ve read that I have not liked and some I’ve even hated.” The book that flashed through my head when he mentioned hating a book? This book. What’s funny is for the longest time, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls took the cake for book I hated the most. That book, which I renamed in seething tones ‘Horsey Camp’, became my reference point for one star ratings. “I didn’t like this at all, BUT… is it Horsey Camp bad?” Well, now I have a new reference point. I haven’t come up with a nickname yet. I’m taking suggestions.
So what is this strange little ridiculous book even about? We have two main characters, Frances and Yasha, and the story switches between both of their points-of-view. Frances is in her early twenties and she’s just been dumped by her college boyfriend. She returns to her childhood home where the house is in turmoil because her sister just got engaged and her parents basically hate the guy. There is talk of disowning her. Of not attending her wedding. Soap opera stuff. Frances decides to accept an apprenticeship at a Viking Museum in Lofoten, Norway. Her parents tell her good, because they’re also breaking up so she won’t have a home to live in. It’s all very dramatic. Frances also has thoughts of whether her parents are good kissers, but I’m getting ahead of myself. So Frances leaves to go find herself and to paint with some Vikings.
Nope. The Vikings weren’t badass like Ragnar or anything unfortunately.
Yasha is a seventeen-year-old kid that has a lot of angst. Him and his father immigrated from Russia, leaving his mother behind, and have been running a bakery in Brooklyn for the last decade. His mother shows up randomly one day telling Yasha that he needs to tell his father that she wants a divorce. You know, like an adult. Yasha’s father isn’t well and doesn’t think he’ll be able to handle the news so he refuses to be the one to tell him. His father announces a glorious adventure he has planned that involves them going back to Russia because he’s determined to get his wife back. Yeah, awkward. Yasha still doesn’t tell him and the two travel all the way to Russia with his father in denial about the fact that she isn’t even there anymore. His father finds out about the divorce anyways. As was expected, he doesn’t take it well… at all. Yasha becomes intent to honor his last wishes, to be buried “at the top of the world.” So Yasha travels to the land of the Vikings where our two main characters meet.
Yasha also has many, many inappropriate comments about his parents. Yes, I sense a theme as well. “What do you even consider ‘inappropriate’? You’re probably overreacting.” Well, since you asked.
‘I wanted to know if my father had been a good kisser. I wanted to know how many men had kissed my mother, and how well. I wanted to know if she planned on kissing new men now. I wanted to know if my mother was a good kisser.’
That lovely line was the first inappropriate comment (from Frances) of MANY you can expect. This was after her parents announced they’re splitting up. Because yes, my parents are divorcing, I shall sit here and contemplate whether it was their kissing skills that ultimately destroyed their love. Frances was the least inappropriate, thankfully, although there was a lot of thought given to her Viking roommate and his pooping habits (no, not kidding) but that wasn’t terribly inappropriate. Just weird. Very, very weird.
Brace yourself. Here comes the super awkward stuff.
‘Yasha imagined his mother’s panties. He imagined his mother wearing different panties for every day of the week. It’s Friday. It’s Saturday.’
“His mother, reclining on her rock, with her body unfurled, looked unquestionably like a woman. Yasha had in some sense never understood her this way – he didn’t know if she shaved her armpits or legs, what creams she kept by the mirror, whether she slept naked or in shorts […]”
‘He entertained the gross, exhilarating idea of his mother being a talented lover. Physically. He wanted to inherit some of her talent.’
I know. I’m terribly sorry to have to do that to you but I needed you to understand! Sunlit Night is the authors debut novel, however, she wrote poetry before and it is evident in a few small sections that I really enjoyed. The area in Norway that the novel is based in is where the sun never sets. Frances and her Viking roommate will often get in the car late at night and just drive and the descriptions of their car trips when the light was dimmest were lush and inviting.
‘These hours were characterized by a wildness of colors, the combined power of a sunset and sunrise. It was easy to watch the horizon for hours straight, the sun in perpetual motion, the sky turning orange and cranberry until at three it returned to blue, and I felt ready for bed.’
‘In every meadow grew white and yellow grasses. Waterfall veins streaked the mountains, and a little rain in the air prepared the sky for rainbows. We drove through a passing wink of colors, a natural hologram.’
Honestly, those lines did nothing but make me angry because those were literally the only lines that I enjoyed reading. Those lines show a potential this novel might have had but never came close to achieving. But who knows, I could be completely wrong. Publisher’s Weekly calls this novel captivating. They also called this novel a rich reading experience with lyrical and silky prose. Did I also mention they gave this a starred review? Kirkus called this a “deliciously melancholy debut”.
Not only was this an extraordinarily painful read, it was incredibly boring. Dinerstein might have her descriptive detail of landscapes down pat, but her characters are flat and one-dimensional. Their actions lack any sort of clarity and their emotions (if they even have any) are kept completely in the dark. Even when the requisite romance is introduced between our two characters, it comes completely out of nowhere.
‘I will not lose Yasha. Maybe his mother had lost him, maybe his father had lost him, Brooklyn had lost him – not me. It wasn’t a matter of somebody keeping him. It was a matter of my wanting him, wanting his face near my face.’
This is clearly a moment that was meant to be profound, however, because of the complete lack of chemistry between Frances and Yasha it lacks any sort of passion. When the two part ways they contemplate what could be between the two, yet there’s no evidence of where these thoughts even came from. The whole idea of both of them being lost and finding each other would work a whole lot better as to explaining their affections for one another if we actually witnessed said affection. It wasn’t even instalove, because while the love was instant, the author could describe it all she wanted but I never saw it. Less telling, more showing.
Reputable magazines can shout loudly from the rooftops about how amazing this one is, but I just didn’t see it. At all. I’ll leave you all with my favorite line of the bunch.
‘To Yasha, the word business meant bread or sex.’
Whatever the fuck that’s supposed to mean.