The emotional core of Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You the Sun is the intimate but paralyzing bond between Noah and Jude Sweetwine, thirteen-year-old fraternal twins coming of age in the Northern California town of Lost Cove. When readers first meet Noah and Jude, the twins are extremely codependent. They can sense each other’s emotions, they play strange theoretical thought games (including one in which they divvy up parts of the world such as the sun, the stars, and the sea), and they comfort one another by sidling into a shoulder-to-shoulder position known as “the smush,” the position they held in the womb. When tragedy and betrayal befall Noah, Jude, and the whole Sweetwine family, the twins drift apart, and it seems as if they will never be able to repair their fractured relationship. As the novel progresses—and as Noah and Jude’s isolated searches for their own emotional, artistic, and sexual identities go on—Nelson uses their separate but parallel journeys to argue that extreme codependency is a more isolating force than isolation itself.
Over the course of the book, Nelson charts Jude and Noah’s relationship as it moves from stifling intimacy to devastated estrangement to something in between. Eventually, Noah and Jude discover a way to love one another without suffocating each other, and Nelson shows how the almost telepathic relationship Jude and Noah shared in their youth had to be bulldozed in order for them to grow as individuals and ultimately strengthen their bond. At the start of the novel, Noah and Jude are so close that they can essentially read each other’s thoughts. They can never play rock-paper-scissors because they always throw out the same symbol and end in a tie; Noah can tell when Jude is upset, angry, or nervous, and even feels her unleash a “psychic air raid” on him in a particularly tense moment with their mother at the local museum. In uncomfortable moments, the two slide together into the so-called smush position, as they have since they were very small. Noah fears that they are getting “too old” for the smush even as he relishes the joy he feels when he and Jude, for the moments they hold the position, seem to morph into “one complete and whole person.”
Noah’s language when he talks about the smush reveals that he, at least, does not feel “whole” without Jude. The first section of the novel is told from Noah’s point of view and reveals an anxiety about needing his sister as badly as he does, even as he worries that their relationship is too close for comfort. These anxieties form the emotional crux of much of the rest of the novel, and as Nelson alternates between Noah and Jude’s points of view, it becomes clear that both siblings fear and desire codependency. Too close for comfort throughout their youth and bound to one identity—“NoahandJude”—the two are unable to handle even small conflicts or competition, a fact that will have devastating consequences when tragedy ruptures their lives.
Midway through the novel, in the sections told from Jude’s point of view (and set three years in the “future”), Noah and Jude’s relationship has become fractured and distant in the wake of the death of their mother, Dianna. Jude attends CSA, an elite art school, but Noah, who expressed a greater interest in the program and went so far as to spy on classes to prepare for his application, does not have a spot. Noah was always the quiet, introverted, artistic one, while Jude was the social butterfly—now, at sixteen, Jude has retreated into her shell, cut off all her hair, and chosen to dress in baggy clothing that hides her body, while Noah enjoys a vibrant social life with the very people he once mocked Jude for hanging out with. Noah has all but dropped his identity as an artist—and, after a disastrous night at an end-of-summer party during his thirteenth year, has chosen to suppress his gayness as well. Jude is unsure of who she really is and has taken up as a marker of her identity her obsession with the ghost of Grandma Sweetwine (and her “bible” of lore and superstition), enshrouding herself in a connection to the world of the dead rather than the world of the living. As time goes by, Jude and Noah know less and less about one another, and are unsure of how to mend their relationship, knowing they are incapable of a return to the synergetic bond they once knew, but afraid of what their relationship looks like without that intense closeness.
By the end of the novel, after a series of revelations that allow Noah and Jude to finally see one another—and the events of the last several years—clearly, the twins are ecstatic to finally have each other back. At the same time, they’re nervous to re-encounter one another in a “world remade” by time and grief. As they finally discuss their mother’s life and death—her affair, her failed aspirations as an artist, and her occasionally selfish nature—they discover that they have grown apart just enough to allow one another the space to breathe. When they attempt a game of rock-paper-scissors, they are stunned—and delighted—to find that they pick different symbols every round.
Noah and Jude’s identities fluctuate and morph throughout the novel. At the start, Noah is the “weird” one, while Jude enjoys popularity and normalcy; by the midpoint of the novel, Jude’s anxieties, fears, and traumas have changed her into a veritable weirdo herself, while Noah has affected a totally “normal” personality in order to hide the truth of who he is. At the end of the novel, when Nelson emotionally reunites the twins, she shows how their identities needed the experimental period their “separation” brought; without the chance to detach from one another, they never would have discovered who they truly were. At the end of the novel, an elated Jude is grateful for the chance she and Noah have had to “remake the world” together rather than dividing it up between them. There is more to the world than just the two of them, and they have grown to see the beauty in that fact.
Identity and Codependency ThemeTracker
Identity and Codependency Quotes in I’ll Give You the Sun
[Jude] scoots over so we’re shoulder to shoulder. This is us. Our pose. The smush. It’s even how we are in the ultrasound photo they took of us inside Mom and how I had us in the picture Fry ripped up yesterday. Unlike most everyone else on earth, from the very first cells of us, we were together, we came here together. This is why no one hardly notices that Jude does most of the talking for both of us, why we can only play piano with all four of our hands on the keyboard and not at all alone, why we can never do Rochambeau because not once in thirteen years have we chosen differently. It’s always: two rocks, two papers, two scissors. When I don’t draw us like this, I draw us as half-people.
The calm of the smush floods me. She breathes in and I join her. Maybe we’re too old to still do this, but whatever. I can see her smiling even though I’m looking straight ahead. We exhale together, then inhale together, exhale, inhale, in and out, out and in, until not even the trees remember what happened in the woods yesterday, until Mom’s and Dad’s voices turn from mad to music, until we’re not only one age, but one complete and whole person.
Mom says Jude acts the way she does now on account of hormones, but I know it’s on account of her hating me. She stopped going to museums with us ages ago, which is probably a good thing, because when she did, her shadow kept trying to strangle mine. I’d see it happening on the walls or on the floor. Sometimes lately, I catch her shadow creeping around my bed at night trying to pull the dreams out of my head. I have a good idea what she does instead of coming to the museum, though. Three times now, I’ve seen hickeys on her neck. Bug bites, she said. Sure. I heard while spying that she and Courtney Barrett have been riding bikes down to the boardwalk on weekends, where they see who can kiss more boys.
(Portrait: Jude Braiding Boy After Boy into Her Hair)
“When Castor died,” he says, “Pollux missed him too much, so he made a deal to share his immortality with him and that’s how they both ended up in the sky.”
“I’d do that,” I say. “Totally.”
“Yeah? Must be a twin thing,” he says, misunderstanding. “Though you’d never know it from that Death by Window Maneuver.” I feel my face flush because I’d meant him, duh, I’d share my immortality with him. I meant you, I want to holler.
After a while, she picks up her fist. I do the same. “One two three,” we say at the same time.
“Yes!” she cries. “We still got it, yes we do!” She jumps to her feet. “We can watch the Animal Channel tonight. Or a movie? You can pick.”
“I want to—”
“Me too,” I reply, knowing what she was going to say. I want to be us again too.
(Portrait, Self-portrait: Brother and Sister on a Seesaw, Blindfolded)
She smiles, touches my arm. “Don’t be sad.” She says it so warmly, it makes the air change color. “It came right through the wall last night.” This was worse when we were younger. If one cried, the other cried even if we were on different sides of Lost Cove. I didn’t think it happened anymore.
“I’m fine,” I say.
She nods. “See you tonight then if Mom and I don’t kill each other.” She gives a salute and is off.
I don’t know how this can be but it can: A painting is both exactly the same and entirely different every single time you look at it. That’s the way it is between Jude and me now.
“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.”
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.”
“Okay. So once upon a time, I saw this cubist portrait my brother did of you and had to have it.” I look at him. “Had to have it. It was love at first sight.” He smiles. “He and I were always playing this game where we’d swap parts of the world for others in a quest for universe domination. He was winning. We’re . . . competitive, that’s the nice way of putting it. Anyway, he didn’t want me to have you. I had to give up almost everything. But it was worth it. I kept you here.” I show him the spot where the picture hung by my bed. “I would stare and stare at you and wish you were real and imagine you coming to that window, just like you did tonight.”
He bursts out laughing. “That’s incredible! We’re absolutely split-aparts.”
“I don’t know if I want a split-apart,” I say honestly. “I think I need my own soul.”
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.
“Let’s go,” Noah says, and we’re running together into the woods like we used to, and I can see how he’ll draw it later, with the redwoods bowing, the flowers opening like houses for us to enter, the creek following behind us in winding wending color, our feet inches above the ground.
Or maybe he’ll do it like this: the forest a blur of green over our heads while we lie on our backs, playing Rochambeau.
He picks rock. I pick scissors. I pick paper. He picks scissors. He picks rock. I pick paper. We give up, happily. It’s a new age. […]
I roll on my side to face him. “So can you believe how weird I’ve gotten and how normal you’ve gotten?” “It’s astounding,” he says, which cracks us both up. “Except most of the time,” he adds, “I feel like I’m undercover.”
“Me too.” I pick up a stick, start digging with it. “Or maybe a person is just made up of a lot of people,” I say. “Maybe we’re accumulating these new selves all the time.” Hauling them in as we make choices, good and bad, as we screw up, step up, lose our minds, find our minds, fall apart, fall in love, as we grieve, grow, retreat from the world, dive into the world, as we make things, as we break things.