In I’ll Give You the Sun, feelings of love and sexual longing crop up on almost every page. As Jude and Noah come of age, they wrestle with feelings of embarrassment related to their newly minted sexualities. The adults, too, wrestle with conflicting desires and painful romances: in Noah’s timeline, Dianna’s relationship with Noah and Jude’s dad Benjamin dissolves, while in Jude’s timeline, her sculpture mentor Guillermo Garcia mourns the failure of a recent relationship. Through these nuanced looks at what love and sexuality mean to different people at different times in their lives, Nelson argues in favor of abandoning fear, embracing love in all its complicated forms, and honoring one’s desires even in the face of prejudice, ridicule, or other seemingly insurmountable barriers.
Nelson uses Noah and Jude’s journeys of self-discovery related to love and sex to demonstrate how fears of rejection and disappointment are not just normal but conquerable. Noah, at thirteen, is intimidated by his sexuality—he knows he is gay, but has not come out to anyone, even Jude. Noah is introverted and lonely, and his only refuge is in his art—which is often related to figuring out his feelings about men. As Noah struggles with feelings of inadequacy and shame, his friendship with Brian—a boy visiting the neighborhood for the summer—ignites feelings of love and passion inside of Noah. Noah longs to be able to express his desire for Brian but is held back by fear of rejection and ridicule. When Brian and Jude are selected to play seven minutes in heaven during Brian’s going-away party at the end of the summer, Noah feels betrayed, and worries that his chances at love are gone forever—but he is elated when Brian returns that winter and almost immediately takes Noah into the woods to passionately kiss him at last. When Dianna discovers Brian and Noah masturbating together some time later, Brian panics and breaks off the relationship, while Noah fears Dianna will tell Benjamin and strain the already-tense relationship between Noah and his father further. It is in the midst of all this chaos that Dianna gets into the fatal crash which claims her life, leaving Noah feeling more alone than ever before.
Jude, the more social of the twins, is already flirting with boys and getting attention for her looks and risqué outfits at the start of the novel. Her sexuality is a point of contention between her and Dianna—Dianna warns Jude against becoming “that girl” and making a show of herself when she goes out with friends. Almost in retaliation against her mother’s warnings, Jude purses a relationship with an older boy, Zephyr, who persuades Jude into having sex on the beach despite Jude’s youth. Jude later discovers that while she was losing her virginity, Dianna was getting into the accident which claimed her life. After Dianna’s death, Jude adopts a “boy boycott,” cutting off all of her hair and dressing in oversized, shapeless clothing in order to stave off all male attention. She can’t deny her feelings, however, when she meets Oscar—a slightly older English boy and her mentor Guillermo Garcia’s assistant. Jude is smitten with Oscar but knows of his shadowed past as a drunk and a womanizer. She slowly begins to allow Oscar in, but when he betrays her by kissing another girl, she re-ups her boycott for good. Oscar declares his love for Jude, though, and reveals that he’s been waiting for her all his life—his own deceased mother, he says, prophesized their meeting. Jude at last agrees to give into her desires and emotions, a decision the novel praises.
The twin’s fears of love and sex derail their youths in many ways. Their shame, guilt, and self-loathing prevent them from finding happiness with those they’re drawn to, and it’s only when they make the radical commitment to abandoning their fears that they’re able to find fulfillment in the arenas of love and sex. The novel ends on a hopeful note, as Jude and Oscar decide to pursue a relationship, and Noah seeks to reconnect with and apologize to Brian after outing him years ago in a fit of rage. The characters have all decided to cast shame aside and embrace their feelings at last.
The adult characters in the novel struggle just as intensely as their younger counterparts when it comes to sex and love. Fear, betrayal, and insecurity mar their relationships and hold them back from chasing what they truly want. The complicated triangle between Dianna, Benjamin, and Guillermo is only revealed in full towards the end of the novel. Dianna began an affair with Guillermo after profiling his work for a magazine. She began to feel that they were soulmates, and asked Benjamin to move out of the house in preparation for divorcing him and following her heart to be with Guillermo. Her fears of disrupting her family’s lives, however, held her back from fully committing to Guillermo—and yet, when she chose to at last declare her desire to marry Guillermo, she was killed on her way over to make the announcement. Nelson uses Dianna’s story as a cautionary tale just as she did with Brian and Noah’s delayed love affair—warning against the pitfalls of ignoring one’s heart.
In the wake of Dianna’s death, Guillermo struggles with grief, pain, and fear. His work stalls, and his inability to create is implied to be tied directly to his fear of moving on from the loss of Dianna—or being unable to create anything that will fill the void left by the loss of her love. As Guillermo watches Jude and Oscar tentatively navigate a relationship and sees Jude overcoming her own fears related to art-making and human connection, Guillermo’s volatile temperament softens, and his creativity is renewed. By abandoning his fears and embracing his memories of the love and strength he drew from his soulmate, Dianna—he is able to move on.
As the characters in I’ll Give You the Sun wrestle with love, they also must wrestle with fear: fear of rejection, fear of happiness, fear of abandoning the memories of those they have loved and lost. Ultimately, Nelson argues that the redemptive powers of love outweigh the destructive, halting powers of fear and trepidation, and shows how her characters, in their own ways, embrace their sexualities, commit radically to love, and learn to stop their anxieties from controlling their lives.
Love, Sex, and Fear ThemeTracker
Love, Sex, and Fear 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.
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)
He points to my pad. “So I guess you just talk in there, is that it?”
“Pretty much,” I say. We’re under a streetlamp and I’m trying not to stare but it’s hard. I wish the world would stick like a clock so I could look at him for as long as I want. There’s something going on in his face right now, something very bright trying to get out—a dam keeping back a wall of light. His soul might be a sun. I’ve never met anyone who had the sun for a soul.
I want to say more so he doesn’t leave. I feel so good, the freaking green leafy kind of good. “I paint in my head,” I tell him. “I was the whole time.” I’ve never told anyone I do this, not even Jude, and I have no idea why I’m telling him. I’ve never let anyone into the invisible museum before.
“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.
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.”
“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.”
“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.