The intersection between science and love is having a moment in young adult fiction, and I for one am all about it. Remember Yuri Strelnikov? You can’t read a YA round-up without encountering scientist protagonists, many of them female.
Nicola Yoon tosses the science/love motif into the mix with the American immigrant experience and the tug-of-war between parents’ and kids’ dreams. The fierce novel that emerges, The Sun Is Also a Star, is one of the top five books of 2016.
It’s also the longest, yet most compressed, meet-cute in the world. Think “When Harry Met Sally” and “Serendipity,” but on Jack Bauer’s timetable. Our young heroes go through all the phases of dramatic love in just over 12 hours: introduction, attraction, infatuation, confrontation, separation, realization, reconciliation.
Undocumented immigrant Natasha Kingsley and her family are boarding a plane to Jamaica at 10 p.m. Natasha plans to spend every last minute trying to stop their deportation: meeting with staff at US Citizenship and Immigration Services, setting up a desperation appointment with an independent immigration lawyer, visiting her favorite places in New York City one more time.
She does not plan to meet Daniel Jae Ho Bae, American-born son of Korean immigrants, poet, and potentially the love of her life. She does not plan for her worldview and heart to be turned upside-down and spun in circles. But love and Daniel do appear on her last day in NYC. Together, Daniel and Natasha traipse across the city for errands, appointments, and axis-altering conversations, falling for each other despite knowing there is no tomorrow for them.
Their story stretches, slows, and skips from one perspective to another, annotated with asides from background characters and poetic explanations of scientific concepts. Imagine watching a romantic comedy where the director pauses every 5-10 minutes to explain all the backstory with thought bubbles, Post-It notes, and squiggly lines (not unlike VH1’s “Pop-Up Video”). Yoon weaves the disparate plot threads into a compelling fabric that grows taut and cogent.
And boy, do we learn things as the day creeps forward. Natasha and Daniel have precious few things in common, but they share one key element: They are the children of immigrants, trying to live 180 degrees apart from their parents’ choices. They discuss the liminality of that lineage in stark, engrossing detail.
Natasha’s father lives a life of regret, trying to pretend he doesn’t resent his family for occupying the slot that acting once held. To distract himself from the stench of stagnation and failure, he loses himself in dreaming that his ticket to stardom is around the corner. Natasha, bitterly aware of his interior monologue, wants nothing to do with dreams. She sets her sights on pragmatic, predictable data science. Hope and passion have no place in Natasha’s world – she trusts only in mathematical calculations and observable facts. Data cannot hurt you like dreams can.
Early in the day, Daniel asks Natasha what she considers the key ingredients of love. She responds, “Mutual self-interest and socioeconomic compatibility.” It’s worlds apart from his answer: “Friendship, intimacy, moral compatibility, physical attraction, and the X factor.” Their responses evolve over the course of the book, spurred by the unrelenting clock and the depth of their connection.
Daniel’s parents immigrated from Korea (on the advice of family) and set up a black hair product store (on the advice of family). They’ve had quiet, unremarkable success. Naturally, they expect similar obedience and practicality from their sons. Daniel’s future is predetermined: Yale, grad school, medical career, marry a Korean woman, have Korean kids, take care of parents, retire, nursing home, funeral home. His father sees it as the American Dream; Daniel sees it as a lifeless, beige slog. He just wants to write poetry and make decisions for himself.
Our young lovers feel acutely that they’re not from the old world, yet they’ve never been fully embraced by the new world.
When Daniel identifies himself as Korean, Natasha inquires, “How come you call yourself Korean? Weren’t you born here?”
He responds, “Doesn’t matter. People always ask where I’m from. I used to say here, but then they ask where are you really from, and then I say Korea.… It doesn’t matter what I say. People take one look at me and believe what they want.… My parents think I’m not Korean enough. Everybody else thinks I’m not American enough.”
Ever the rationalist, Natasha declares, “I don’t think you should say you’re from Korea, though. Because it’s not true. You’re from here. It’s not up to you to help other people fit you into a box.”
Daniel searches for meaning and the hand of fate in every moment. His relentless hope slowly erodes Natasha’s cynicism. Feeling the clock tick, she tries to talk herself out of love with a beautiful treatise on literal vs. metaphorical hearts:
“When they say the heart wants what it wants, they’re talking about the poetic heart – the heart of love songs and soliloquies, the one that can break as if it were just-formed glass. They’re not talking about the real heart, the one that needs healthy foods and aerobic exercise.
“[T]he poetic heart is not to be trusted. It is fickle and will lead you astray. It will tell you that all you need is love and dreams. It will say nothing about food and water and shelter and money. It will tell you that this person, the one in front of you, the one who caught your eye for whatever reason, is ...The One – for right now, until his heart or her heart decides on someone else or something else. The poetic heart is not to be trusted with long-term decision-making.”
This weighs heavily on her mind as 10 p.m. draws closer.
Natasha thinks, “From this distance, the city looks orderly and planned, as if all of it were created at one time for one purpose. When you’re inside it, though, it feels like chaos.” If that’s not a metaphor for love, life, the writing process, and the cosmos itself, I don’t know what is.
Love is nuclear fusion. Two small forces collide despite impossible odds and with unimaginable potential. The collision fundamentally alters their chemical composition, and the shock wave of their experience has impact beyond their ken. Natasha and Daniel’s story is a revelation, and the denouement reverberates in your mind.
Yoon achieves a pitch-perfect balance between observation and poetry, mirroring the delicate balance between her characters. “The Sun Is Also a Star” is a new classic. It’s a potent, insightful bestseller that deserves a permanent and prominent spot in every YA library.