Though the novel starts off on an optimistic, even playful note, by the second chapter—set three years in the future—the book’s atmosphere has been permeated by an awful sense of grief and guilt. Dianna Sweetwine, Noah and Jude’s mother, has died in a horrible car accident—and both Noah and Jude, for reasons that will slowly be revealed over the course of the novel, feel responsible not just for her death but also for the deterioration of their family unit and their relationship with one another. As Jude and Noah seek to ameliorate their grief and guilt—or simply distract themselves from it—Nelson paints a portrait of a family in crisis and ultimately argues that grief and guilt, forces which should theoretically bond sufferers together, actually have the opposite effect. Instead, grief and guilt often scatter and isolate sufferers from one another, thus intensifying their pain.
Between the two timelines the novel exists in—the “past,” narrated by the thirteen- and fourteen-year-old Noah, and the “future,” narrated by the sixteen-year-old Jude—a terrible tragedy occurs. The Sweetwine twins’ mother, Dianna, dies, leaving behind a wealth of secrets and inspiring feelings of jealousy, grief, and guilt in her children and husband, Benjamin. Dianna’s death serves as a catalyst for many characters’ selfish, destructive actions—actions borne out of grief, which serve to isolate, antagonize, and distance even at a time of great need.
The two characters who bear the brunt of grief and guilt throughout the novel are Noah and Jude. As the novel progresses, many secrets, traumas, and tensions come to light. In the weeks leading up to Dianna’s death, she and Jude had been arguing nonstop about Jude’s risqué outfits and interest in makeup and boys, while Noah had recently uncovered the fact that his mother was having an affair—with none other than Jude’s present-day sculpture mentor, Guillermo Garcia. Noah’s guilt over Dianna’s death stems from the fact that on the day she died, she was going to end things with Benjamin, and Noah told her that he hated her; Jude’s comes from the fact that while Dianna was getting into the fatal accident, Jude was down on the beach losing her virginity to a local boy named Zephyr, defying her mother’s warnings not to turn into “that girl.”
It’s eventually revealed that Jude, who was tasked with mailing both her and her brother’s applications to art school, threw Noah’s away out of jealousy in the weeks following the accident that claimed their mother’s life. This act of sabotage, among others—including Noah destroying one of Jude’s favorite drawings, and Jude agreeing to a round of seven minutes in heaven with Noah’s crush, Brian—all stem from feelings of jealousy, grief, and anger that Noah and Jude develop as a result of their near-symbiotic relationship. When Dianna—whose prized attentions they’d always vied for—is ripped from their lives, the schism is too much to bear, as are the resulting feelings of jealousy and pain. Both siblings begin acting out against one another, and eventually become all but strangers to each other. Rather than coming together to mourn their mother, Noah and Jude isolate themselves, and their relationship grows increasingly complicated and estranged with each passing day.
Benjamin Sweetwine and Guillermo Garcia are two more characters whose grief and guilt calibrate much of their storylines. Noah and Jude’s dad, who’d already felt like an outsider in his own family prior to Dianna’s death (and even prior to their separation), retreats further into himself, becoming more of a roommate to his children than a father. Guillermo—the man Dianna had planned to leave Benjamin in order to marry—is the sixteen-year-old Jude’s sculpture mentor, and though she doesn’t know of the connection between Guillermo and her mother, she knows that Guillermo is in mourning for a failed relationship. Jude assumes that the woman Guillermo loved left or rebuffed him—it isn’t until nearly the end of the novel that she understands that, had Dianna lived, Guillermo likely would have become her stepfather.
In both Benjamin and Guillermo’s cases, these two men isolate themselves in their grief and do not seek connection, help, or comfort from those around them. Guillermo stalks around his studio smashing sculptures and ranting in Spanish, while Benjamin becomes a shell of his former self. Neither man reaches out to anyone else in their time of need, and yet their attempts to sublimate their own grief in order to move past it only increases its power over them.
Towards the end of the novel, all of the secrets, lies, and feelings of guilt and shame between Jude and Noah—and indeed all of the tangential characters, including Benjamin and Guillermo—are expunged through a series of staggering revelations. As the connections between the various characters are at last revealed—and as each realizes how they have, in their own ways, maximized their grief and guilt by refusing to see the meaningful connections that have been all around them all along—the characters experience an ecstatic period of rejoicing as they vow to “remake” their little world together rather than hide any longer in their own separate worlds of grief, guilt, and shame.
Grief and Guilt ThemeTracker
Grief and Guilt Quotes in I’ll Give You the Sun
That’s when he started telling me I could say no and that’s when I didn’t. Then his whole body was pressing me into the hot sand, burying me in it. I kept thinking, it’s okay, I can handle this. I can. It’s okay, okay, okay. But it wasn’t and I couldn’t.
I didn’t know you could get buried in your own silence. And then it was over. And then everything was.
There’s more, but I’m not going to get into it now. Just know: I cut off three feet of blond hair and swore away boys forever be cause after this happened with Zephyr, my mother died. Right after. It was me. I brought the bad luck to us.
This boycott isn’t whimsy. To me, boys don’t smell like soap or shampoo or cut grass or sweat from soccer practice or suntan lotion or the ocean from hours spent in the green curl of a wave anymore, they smell like death.
“This sculpture needs to be made so much you cry like this?”
I turn around. He’s leaning against the wall by the painting of the kiss, his arms crossed.
“Yes,” I gasp out, then say more calmly, “Yes.” Is he changing his mind? The sob begins to retreat.
He’s stroking his chin. His expression softens. “You need to make this sculpture so badly, you will risk your young life by sharing space with a disease-carrying cat?”
“Yes. Totally, yes. Please.”
“You are sure you want to forsake the warm, moist breath of clay for the cold, unforgiving eternity of stone.”
“I am sure.” Whatever that means.
“Come back tomorrow afternoon. Bring your portfolio and a sketchpad. And tell your brother to give you back the sun, trees, stars, all of it already. I think you need.”
“I’ve tried everything to get through to her, Guillermo. Absolutely everything. I have this weird book and I scour it for ideas nonstop. I’ve done it all. I’ve slept with her jewelry under my pillow. I’ve stood on the beach at midnight, holding up a picture of the two of us to a blue moon. I’ve written letters to her and put them in her coat pockets, in red mailboxes. I’ve thrown messages into storms. I recite her favorite poem to her every night before I go to bed. And all she does is break what I make. That’s how angry she is.” I’ve started to sweat. “It would kill me if she broke this.” My lips are trembling. Covering my mouth, I add, “It’s the one thing I have.”
A week after Dad’s forgotten birthday, with the rain beating the crap out of the house, Mom and Dad seat Jude and me in the frozen part the living room no one ever sits in to inform us that Dad’s temporarily moving down to the Lost Cove Hotel. […] Mom tells us he’ll be renting a studio apartment by the week until they can work out some issues they’re having.
Even though we haven’t spoken in forever, I can feel Jude’s heart clenching and unclenching inside my chest with mine.
“What issues?” she asks, but after that the rain gets so loud I can’t hear what anyone’s saying anymore. I’m convinced the storm’s going to bust down the walls. Then it does and I’m remembering Dad’s dream because it’s happening. I watch as the wind sweeps everything off the shelves: knickknacks, books, a vase of purple flowers. No one else notices. I grip the armrests of the chair tight.
(Family Portrait: Assume the Crash Position)
I can hear Mom’s voice again. It’s calm, too calm, yellow fluttering birds that don’t belong in this life-bucking tempest. “We still love each other very much,” she says. “We just both need some space right now.” She looks at Dad. “Benjamin?”
[Mom] gets up, walks over to me, puts her hand under my chin, and lifts my face so I’m forced into the earnest hold of her eyes. “Listen to me. It takes a lot of courage to be true to yourself, true to your heart. You always have been very brave that way and I pray you always will be. It’s your responsibility, Noah. Remember that.”
“This afternoon I teach you to use the power tools. With these you must be so, so careful. The chisel, like life, allows for second chances. With the saws and drills, often there is no second chance.”
I stop walking. “You believe that? About second chances? In life, I mean.” […]
“Of course, why not? Even God, he have to make the world twice.” His hands take to the air. “He make the first world, decide it is a very terrible world he made, so he destroy with the flood. Then he try again, start it all over with—”
“With Noah,” I say, finishing his sentence.
“Yes, so if God can have two tries, why not us? Or three or three hundred tries.” He laughs under his breath. “You will see, only with the diamond blade circular saw do you have one chance.” He strokes his chin. “But even then sometimes you make a catastrophic mistake, you think I am going to kill myself because the sculpture is ruined, but in the end it come out more incredible than had you not made the mistake. This is why I love the rocks. When I sculpt with clay, it feel like cheating. It is too easy. It has no will of its own. The rocks are formidable. They stand up to you. It is a fair fight. Sometimes you win. Sometimes they win. Sometimes when they win, you win.”
Dad drove us to the post office to mail off the applications. We couldn’t find a parking spot so Dad and Noah waited in the car while I went in. That’s when I did it. I just did it.
I only mailed mine.
I took from my brother the thing he wanted most in the world. What kind of person does that?
Not that it matters, but I went back to the post office the next day, ran all the way there, but the garbage had been emptied. All his dreams got taken out with the trash. Mine went straight to CSA.
I kept telling myself I would tell Noah and Dad. I would tell them at breakfast, after school, at dinner, tomorrow, on Wednesday. I would tell Noah in time so he could reapply, but I didn’t. I was so ashamed—the kind that feels like suffocating—and the longer I waited, the more the shame grew and the more impossible it got to admit what I’d done. Guilt grew too, like a disease, like every disease. There weren’t enough diseases in Dad’s library. Days kept passing, then weeks, and then, it was too late. I was too scared if I confessed, I’d lose Dad and Noah forever, too cowardly to face it, to fix it, to make it right.
This is why my mother destroys everything I make. This is why she can’t forgive me.
I go outside and ask [Guillermo] to teach me how to use the diamond blade circular saw. He does.
It’s time for second chances. It’s time to remake the world.
Knowing I only have one shot to get it right with this tool, I wrap the cord around my shoulder, position the circular saw between Noah’s shoulder and my own, and turn on the power. The tool roars to life. My whole body vibrates with electricity as I split the rock in two.
So that NoahandJude becomes Noah and Jude.
“You kill them?” Guillermo says in disbelief.
“No, I saved them.”
“[Oscar] didn’t save my life and it doesn’t matter how high it is.” [Noah is] getting drunker by the minute, talking with two tongues now. “It’s Mom who keeps me up. It’s like I have a parachute on. Like I can practically fly.” He makes a slow swoosh with his hand through the air. “I sail all the way down so incredibly slowly. Every time.”
My mouth falls open. Yes, he does. I’ve seen it.
This is why he keeps jumping then, so Mom will break his fall?
I take him by the shoulders. “Noah.” My voice has returned. “It wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t.” I repeat the words until I’m sure he’s heard them, believes them. “It wasn’t anyone’s. It just happened. This terrible thing happened to her. This terrible thing happened to us.”
And then it’s my turn. I’m being shoved forward, shoved right out of my skin with just how terrible—Mom ripped out of my life the very moment I needed her the most, the bottomless unconditional shielding sheltering love she had for me taken forever. I let myself feel the terrible, surrender to it finally instead of running from it, instead of telling myself it all belongs to Noah and not to me, instead of putting an index of fears and superstitions between me and it, instead of mummifying myself in layers of clothing to protect myself from it, and I’m falling forward with the force of two years of buried grief, the sorrow of ten thousand oceans finally breaking inside me—
I let it. I let my heart break.
And Noah is there, strong and sturdy, to catch me, to hold me through it, to make sure I’m safe.
“How do you feel about moving? Not out of Lost Cove but to another house. […] A houseboat.” I can’t decide what’s more amazing: the words coming out of Dad’s mouth or the expression on his face. […] “I think we need an adventure. The three of us together.”
“You want us to live on a boat?” I ask.
“He wants us to live on an ark, ” Noah answers, awe in his voice.
“I do!” Dad laughs. “That’s exactly right. I’ve always wanted to do this.” Really? News to me. Um, who is this man? “I just did some research and you will not believe what’s for sale down by the marina.” He goes to his briefcase and pulls out some pictures he must’ve printed from the Internet.
“Oh wow,” I say. This is no rowboat. It is an ark.
“An architect owned it previously,” Dad tells us. “Renovated the whole thing, did all the woodwork and stained glass herself. Incredible, isn’t it? Two stories, three bedrooms, two baths, great kitchen, skylights, wraparound decks on both floors. It’s a floating paradise.”
Noah and I must register the name of the floating paradise at the exact same moment, because we both blurt out, imitating Mom, “Embrace the mystery, Professor.”
The name of this houseboat is The Mystery.
I glance around the room, sensing Mom so much, certain this is what she wanted. She knew we each held an essential part of the story that needed to be shared. She wanted me to know she saw the sculptures and only Guillermo could tell me that. She wanted Guillermo and Dad to hear the truth from Noah. She wanted me to tell Noah about CSA and maybe I wouldn’t have found the courage if I hadn’t come to Guillermo, if I hadn’t picked up a chisel and hammer. She wanted us in Guillermo’s life, and he in ours, because we are, each one of us for the other, a key to a door that otherwise would’ve remained locked forever.
Our connection is still so natural, though now, for me, it’s tinged with guilt because of Dad. I turn back to my clay model, start caressing my mother’s shoulder into shape, her upper arm. “It’s like some part of me knew,” I tell him, working the bend of her elbow. “I don’t know what I knew, but I knew I was supposed to be here. You made me feel better too. So much better. I was so locked in.”
“This is what I think,” he says. “I think maybe Dianna, she break your bowls, so you come find a stone carver.”
I look at him. “Yeah,” I say, the back of my neck tingling. “Me too.”
Because who knows? Who knows anything? Who knows who’s pulling the strings? Or what is? Or how? Who knows if destiny is just how you tell yourself the story of your life? Another son might not have heard his mother’s last words as a prophecy but as drug-induced gibberish, forgotten soon after. Another girl might not have told herself a love story about a drawing her brother made. Who knows if Grandma really thought the first daffodils of spring were lucky or if she just wanted to go on walks with me through the woods? Who knows if she even believed in her bible at all or if she just preferred a world where hope and creativity and faith trump reason? Who knows if there are ghosts (sorry, Grandma) or just the living, breathing memories of your loved ones inside you, speaking to you, trying to get your attention by any means necessary? Who knows where the hell Ralph is? (Sorry, Oscar.) No one knows.
So we grapple with the mysteries, each in our own way.