Monday, April 8, 2019

Lovely, Dark, and Deep - Justina Chen

Summary:  What would you do if the sun became your enemy?  That's exactly what happens to Viola Li after she returns from a trip abroad and develops a sudden and extreme case of photosensitivity -- an inexplicable allergy to sunlight  Thanks to her crisis-manager parents, she doesn't just have to wear layers of clothes and a hat the size of a spaceship.  She has to stay away from all hint of light.  Say goodbye to windows and running outdoors.  Even her phone becomes a threat when its screen burns her.

Viola is determined to maintain a normal life, particularly after she meets Josh.  He's a funny, talented Thor look-alike who carries his own mysterious grief.  But the intensity of her romance makes her take more and more risks, and when a rebellion against her parents backfires dangerously, she must find her way to a life -- and love-- as deep and lovely as her dreams. (Summary from book flap - Image from

My Review:  Lovely, Dark, and Deep is about a young girl named Viola who is suddenly diagnosed with a rare condition.  Basically, she's allergic to the sun and quite a few other light sources.  And by allergic I mean hives, blisters, possible death.  As you can imagine, this wreaks havoc on pretty much every aspect of her life -- school, home, love.  All of it in shambles.  This book is basically how she learns to deal with the mess, reorder her hopes/dreams/ambitions, and live life on her terms.

Right out of the gate, Lovely, Dark, and Deep had my full attention.  The first chapter takes place at a Pop Culture convention, where Viola is dressed as River Tam -- a character from Firefly (my favorite lesser known/short-lived TV series).  As if that isn't enough, in the middle of peddling baked goods for a good cause, she passes out and it caught by none other than THOR, or at the very least a guy who strongly resembles him.  Possible love interest? Color me riveted.

When Viola received her official diagnosis (solar urticaria), my reading antennae perked up.  Re-perked? For two reasons.

  • First, this is the sort of thing that you hear about from time to time, but it doesn't often show up in books.  Or at least it hasn't shown up in any of the books that I have read before, and I like new material to chew on.  I was also fascinated by the lifestyle repercussions for someone with this allergy and the lengths a person or family must go to make their home and daily routine safe from something so seemingly harmless as sunshine.  It continues to boggle my mind. 
  • Second, my eldest daughter also has a rare allergy.  Long story short, she has physical urticaria, which means that if her skin gets too cold she will get hives, itch like crazy, and sometimes has to deal with swelling in her extremities.  It can also happen with extreme heat or contact, though this happens less frequently.  Her case is fairly mild (nothing like Viola's) and she is still able to do many things with relatively minor discomfort (and the occasional preemptive benadryl).  However, we are still careful to avoid polar bear plunges and the like for fear of how her body might react to a sudden temperature shift.  It was interesting to read about fictional someone with a real-life rare allergy.

In Lovely, Dark, and Deep, Vi's fury and frustration fairly radiated off the page as her condition continued to deteriorate and any semblance of a normal life kept slipping through her fingers.  Normal clothes, gone.  Cell phone, gone.  Giant hat, required indoors and out.  Sunscreen, everywhere.  Dating, impossible.  Cardboard in her windows.  College dreams in pieces.  It seemed fairly realistic that any teenager would try to test the boundaries of her illness, act rashly, and be angry at parents making decisions on her behalf, no matter how much in-her-best-interest they were.  If occasionally the dialogue included some heavily melodramatic lines worthy of an eye-roll or two...well, I suppose that's part of the writing in the teenage voice and probably more authentic than not.

One of my favorite aspects of the story was Viola herself.  She is a strong female character who is not only socially aware and concerned for others, but completely driven.  Vi knows what she wants out of life and has meticulously planned how to get it.  When her condition completely annihilates those plans, Vi inevitably flounders.  She fights and rages and gives up and tries again and figures it out (eventually).  I loved that about her.  Allergy or not, Vi finds a way to make a life worth living.

One clever aspect of the book is the authors use of ink.  As the story progresses and Vi's condition worsens, the first page of each chapter gets progressively darker.  It's unnoticeable at first.  I don't know that I even picked up on it until about halfway through the book.  Towards the end of the book, it becomes rather hard to read black font on a charcoal page.  I had to squint a bit, but thankfully it's only that first page of the chapter and not the chapters in their entirety.  I think it was meant to discomfort the reader, like how Vi might feel trying to read in the absence of light.  Eventually you get some relief, in the form of a white font, but the pages themselves continue to darken.  It's all very artistic and I just loved the little extra something it added to the book.

It might come as surprise, but while I really enjoyed many aspects of the story, I'm not sure I loved the book.  I just didn't feel the pull to pick-it-up-and-never-put-it-down that is the hallmark (for me) of a really excellent book. This could be partly my fault in choosing it in the first place.  I've been trying to find age-appropriate books that my daughter would like to read and picking up books that I think *she* would like, but they aren't really what *I* want to be reading.  I do think that Lovely, Dark, and Deep is thoughtful and well-written, but for me, it's a one and done kind of book.  I have my own stack to work on.  That having been said, I think that my 15-year-old daughter (The Great Hived One) would probably enjoy it, and I think she's of the age I can hand it over without too much concern.

My Rating: 3.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader:  A handful of H-words.  Some references to having regrettably "gone further than ever" with another boy in his car (that's the extent of the details given).  Also some making out with "Thor".

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