My rating: 3 of 5 stars
What Light (2016) by Jay Asher is a cute book perfect for Christmastime and for teenage girls between the ages of 13 and 18 because the story, a light romance for young adults, deals with its central character Sierra, a junior in high school who must handle temporarily moving from Oregon to California for her family to sell Christmas trees during the holiday season, from Thanksgiving to Christmas.
While exiled at the Christmas tree lot “three hours south of San Francisco” (pg 5), Sierra befriends and falls in love with Caleb, a young boy who has secrets that could change the way Sierra feels about him.
Torn between her friends back home and Caleb, as well as the past and the future since she won’t be returning to California next year, What Light takes the reader through adolescent emotions of homesickness, friendships, and falling in love.
The book is full of candy canes, Christmas trees (even used as an image to designate section breaks), adjectives such as “Christmassy” (pg 36), traditions, the Hallmark Channel, Feliz Navidad (pg 93), turkey salad, turrón, lots of hot chocolate, Rudolph, Christmas cookies (pg 115), cranberries, a 1950s-themed diner, peppermint mochas, ghosts, Santa’s Gingerbread Cottage (pg 140), winter queens and princesses, good deeds, rumors, cinnamon candles, Cardinals Peak, Christmas miracles, and the question that sets the story in motion: “What exactly would a holiday love affair entail?”
Sierra finally meets Caleb after he constantly returns to buy Christmas trees from her family’s lot (which is strange since most people only need one tree), and Sierra is given a strict warning from her friend Heather:
“At the drink station, he lifts a paper cup from the top of the upside-down cup tower. Beyond him, I see Heather peek out from behind a flocked tree, sipping on her own hot chocolate. When she sees me watching, she shakes her head and mouths ‘Bad idea’ before slowly sliding herself back behind the branches…
“‘Tell me what your addiction is,’ I say [to Caleb]. ‘Is it the Christmas trees or the hot drinks?’” (pgs 57 & 61).
When Sierra begins to have feelings for Caleb, she worries they don’t know each other well enough and that when Christmas is over she’ll have to return with her mother and father back to Oregon and leave Caleb in California.
“I stir my drink with the candy cane and study the spirals it forms. It feels like this will be more than two people simply hanging out. It feels like I’m being asked out. If he did that, having nothing to do with trees, a part of me would love to say yes. But how much do I honestly know about him? And he knows even less about me” (pg 81).
These are the “big” questions that are presented throughout the young adult book and, thus, the reader shouldn’t expect anything heavier or deeper on a metaphysical or existential level. What Light is a fun, lighthearted, easygoing story that mostly involves two teenagers trying to get to know one another and deal with an uncertain future, which may be considered as an introduction into more adult situations and problems.
“After a long hesitation, I ask, ‘Is there a story there?’
“His answer is immediate. “It’s a long story, Sierra.’
“I’m obviously prying, but then why would I consider even a friendship with him if I can’t ask a simple question? It’s not like the question came out of nowhere. It was regarding something that happened right in front of me. If something that small shuts him down, I don’t know if I want to stick around. I’ve walked away from much less than this.
“I replay the way Jeremiah’s mom looked at Caleb as she drove by and his sister marched him down the sidewalk. I want to ask for more details, but he needs to want to tell me. The only way we can get closer is if he’s the one asking me in…
“I like Caleb. I like him even more every time I see him. And this can only lead to disaster. I’m leaving at the end of the month, he’s staying, and the weight of everything not said between us is growing too heavy to carry much longer” (pgs 106-107, 111).
The cheerful, carefree story pivots when Sierra finally learns that Caleb hides an awful secret from his past two years before and how Sierra will need to convince her parents that the boy she crushes on is still a nice and decent guy.
“I consider what my parents would say if they knew Caleb snapped like he did, even if it was two years ago. Ever since I can remember, they have always emphasized forgiveness, believing people can change. I want to think they would stand by those words, but when it comes to me and who I like, I’m not sure how they would react” (pg 134).
Even as the relationship grows more complicated, Sierra believes the best in Caleb and determines to forgive him for his actions from years before. Sierra’s former love-interest, Andrew, however, has other ideas about Sierra’s happy ending.
“Every time I give Caleb the benefit of the doubt, he proves himself. Every time I stand up for him, I know I’m right. There have been a million reasons why I could have given up, but every time I don’t, it makes me want to try that much harder to make us work…
“He looks back at Andrew, who is now blatantly glaring at us” (pgs 166-167).
Problems between Caleb and the community grow and begin to affect Sierra’s relationship with Caleb until Caleb breaks down and wants to give up. Sierra attempts to fight for him and wants him to start believing in himself the way she believes in him.
“He still can’t face me. ‘I’m sorry, Sierra. You don’t deserve this. When I see you here, we’ve got Andrew. And you saw what my house is like. We can’t even go to a grocery store without drama. That’s not going to change in the time we have left.
“I can’t believe what he’s saying. He couldn’t even look at me to say it…
“My body feels weak, and I touch the door for balance. ‘You said I was worth it. I believed you.’
“He doesn’t answer…
“He stares at his steering wheel. ‘I can’t do it anymore,’ he says softly.
“I wait for him to take that back. He doesn’t know all I’ve done to stand up for him. With Heather. My parents. Jeremiah. I even angered my friends back home so I could be with him. If he knew any of that, though, it would only hurt him more” (pg 178).
The intensity thickens in the teenage relationship between Sierra and Caleb until Sierra’s father steps in and ends the holiday love affair, going against his beliefs in mercy and redemption.
“Dad walks up behind me. ‘That has to be the end, Sierra. I don’t want you seeing him anymore.’
“I spin toward him.
“He shakes his head. ‘It’s not the thing with his sister. Not just that. It’s everything.’
“The warm and beautiful feeling I’ve just experienced all evening bleeds out of me, replaced by a heavy dread. ‘I thought you were letting it go.’
“‘We’re leaving soon,’ he says, ‘you know that. And you must know that you’ve been growing way too attached.’
“I can’t find my voice or even the words to shout at him. Things were finally going right and he has to ruin that? No. I will not let him do this” (pg 200).
With Sierra and Caleb’s relationship coming to an end, emotionally and geographically, you will just have to read the book to find out what happens in the end.
Trust me, you won’t be disappointed. After all, it’s a love story you’ll be reading and at Christmastime at that. At 249 pages, What Light is an extremely easy read for advanced readers and should be more suitable, and challenging, for younger teenagers.
Keep reading and smiling…
CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy), and a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU. He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father’s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; A Time to Forget in East Berlin; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
You can read more about the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 350,000+ followers