It’s rare when you read a story so original and unique that it doesn’t draw any similarities to anything you’ve ever read before. Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert is that kind of book. It’s a refreshing page turner that pictured me staying up late to finish it. I couldn’t put it down.
How well do we really know our parents? Danny Cheng is a high school senior with a free ride to one of the most prestigious art schools when his world falls apart after learning his parents darkest secret. He’s the only Chinese American at his high school who has never been to China, barely speaks Chinese, and doesn’t even know his parents’ original Chinese names. After finding a mysterious box deep in the closet containing information about a man he’s never heard of, he begins to do some digging to find out what his parents have been hiding from him his entire life.
At school, Danny is best friends with a couple, Regina and Harry. The previous year, Regina’s best friend committed suicide and the school paper is secretly working on a tribute issue devoted to her against school’s orders. Danny is tasked with being involved, despite the fact that he didn’t have a great relationship with the deceased and doesn’t want to get in trouble.
Danny and Harry have a deep and profound friendship and Danny begins to realize his true feelings for Harry. There’s no sexual content to speak of, but an important part of Danny’s transition to being an adult is his sexual awakening and his fear that Harry likely won’t return his affection, despite all of the confusing signals he sends. It’s a painful part of growing up homosexual that often gets glossed over and Kelly Loy Gilbert has touched on it in a very real and profound way.
Danny’s father is a scientist whose controversial work involves the way our atoms respond to those we love the most. His research shows evidence that concentrating on someone you love, even when separated by great distances, can cause their atoms to react without them knowing it. And this all comes into play in the story in unique and beautiful ways.
The story takes place in the Bay Area and Kelly Loy Gilbert’s love for her home is so evident in every page. It’s not merely a setting, but an integral part of the story that makes it feel real. You believe you could spot Danny in San Francisco installing his art gallery, or find him getting some take out pork buns at 99 Ranch Market. And the Bay Area’s overpriced housing even plays a vital role.
My only criticism is that it’s a bit slow to start, with a lot of exposition and character development upfront causing it to feel like nothing of importance happens until a third of the way in. But once it gets going, it doesn’t stop surprising. Danny Cheng is one of the most fascinating fictional characters of the 21st century and readers are in for a surprising amount of twists as he gets close to graduation.
I can’t say enough great things about Picture Us in the Light. It paints a picture of a family dealing with the ramifications of their past decisions and a son who feels the weight of it all on his shoulders. As he establishes who he is as an adult, he must also confront who his parents are, a scenario that hasn’t been explored enough. There’s never been anything quite like it before and it earns my highest recommendation.
Alex has been blogging about Disney films since 2009 after a lifetime of fandom. He joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and covers films across all of Disney’s brands, including Star Wars, Marvel, and Fox, in addition to books, music, toys, consumer products, and food. You can hear his voice as a member of the Laughing Place Podcast and his face can be seen on Laughing Place’s YouTube channel where he unboxes stuff.