Hi everyone! I’ve recommended Picture Us in the Light to just about everyone I know since first reading it in 2019, and yet found it difficult to elaborate on the details of why I loved it — it’s a book which you really need to experience for yourself, without knowing too much beforehand. Still, after discussing it briefly alongside two other books in my piece for Meanjin’s What I’m Reading series last year, I really felt like I’d only scraped the surface of the book, and it’s motivated me to share more.
About the Book:
Danny Cheng has always known his parents have secrets. But when he discovers a taped-up box in his father’s closet filled with old letters and a file on a powerful Silicon Valley family, he realizes there’s much more to his family’s past than he ever imagined.
Danny has been an artist for as long as he can remember and it seems his path is set, with a scholarship to RISD and his family’s blessing to pursue the career he’s always dreamed of. Still, contemplating a future without his best friend, Harry Wong, by his side makes Danny feel a panic he can barely put into words. Harry and Danny’s lives are deeply intertwined and as they approach the one-year anniversary of a tragedy that shook their friend group to its core, Danny can’t stop asking himself if Harry is truly in love with his girlfriend, Regina Chan.
When Danny digs deeper into his parents’ past, he uncovers a secret that disturbs the foundations of his family history and the carefully constructed facade his parents have maintained begins to crumble. With everything he loves in danger of being stripped away, Danny must face the ghosts of the past in order to build a future that belongs to him.
There are basically two key plot lines in this book: Danny unravelling his family’s secrets and the impact this has on him and his parents, and the relationships between him and his friends as they grapple with an incident a year ago, and other changing dynamics. Throughout the book, we come to understand the characters intimately as past actions and tragedies come to light.
Danny and his family
This book has one of the most resonant, but also heartbreaking, depictions of parent-child relationships I’ve ever come across. Danny’s parents have so much overwhelming love for their son — something the book demonstrates in touching ways which felt so real with their subtle detail and familiarity. When he gets accepted to RISD at the beginning, his parents are elated and were confident all along that he would have been accepted; in a quiet family dinner scene that follows, Danny notices that there’s something that they seem to want to tell him about but they hold back, wanting to focus on celebrating him and their happiness.
Their love is something which Danny is completely sure of, yet they are also overprotective of him. Later in the story, he becomes resentful with confusion and frustration at their increasingly unexplained actions.
Having an overprotective family without fully knowing the reason for your parents’ attitudes was something I could really relate to. How can you argue against their fears, even when it’s holding you back and makes you feel different from your peers, when you know it’s all driven by love? How do you argue against their overwhelming need to ensure your safety? We see this love and protectiveness over and over again in how much Danny’s parents are willing to sacrifice for him.
They exchange that look that means they’re weighing something I’ve asked for against all the threats of the world — a cell network glitch that means they can’t reach me if they need to, a blind curve up in the hills by Harry’s house.[…]
I’ve long since stopped trying to argue or to promise that nothing will ever happen, even when I’m going to be just a few minutes away.p24
I’ve never really pinpointed one exact reason for my own parents’ overprotectiveness — it’s probably a combination of circumstances arising from migrating at a young age and leaving a lot behind. In the case of Danny’s parents, there are specific, tragic experiences which have shaped how careful they are. At the start, we learn that he had an older sister who died in China, and there have been evident impacts on both his parents. But there’s more to it than that which they are keeping from him.
As the massive secrets Danny’s parents have kept from him are revealed, we can’t help but think about what a difference it might have made to their circumstances if they’d told him more, even when Danny makes his own flawed decisions which hurt them. But we also understand why they had held back — their son was the centre of their world, and they didn’t want him to have anything but a hopeful and a positive outlook. Many immigrant parents make numerous sacrifices for their children, and this story made it so personal in this family’s specific choices.
I should’ve recognised sooner how intimately they understand guilt and how it’s shaped them and shaped me, too, both the choices they’ve had to make and the stories they tell themselves.p344
High School experiences, friendships and tragedy
For more discussions on this aspect of the book and how I could personally identify with the Cupertino community, see my Meanjin piece. In general, I loved seeing so many Asian-American characters in the school and story in a normalised way — with all their last names on the page, the mentions of things like tutoring and the impact of their parents’ expectations, referring to tests and how their lives are driven by academics. It really felt like being back in the Chinese-dominant school and suburb I lived in when I was younger.
Fun fact: after seeing my friend CW (the Quiet Pond) initially recommend this book and searching it up, I found this interview with the author. Her answers, specifically to the question about intersectionality, were ones that I understood so intimately that I went online and ordered the book right away. (I’d never done that before with barely knowing anything about the book and have never done it since, but it really felt like this book had been waiting for me, and I had been waiting for it)
Danny frequently reflects on the past and how he grew up in this tight community, with all the experiences from their primary school and younger years which have shaped and lingered with him, and I enjoyed this shifting narrative, weaving past and present.
I also admired the complexity of friendships and relationships which were depicted. A subplot of the book is Danny falling in love with his best friend Harry, and his conflicted feelings towards Harry’s relationship with his girlfriend Regina. Because Danny cares so much about Regina, her happiness, and what she thinks as well — he describes her friendship as “the most important one I had growing up, the person who always knew me best and whose opinion I always needed” (p40). There are such nuances in how each of them feel about each other.
Finally, it’s always wonderful to see queer Asian rep: in this case, not only through the m/m romance, but also because it’s implied that Danny is demi.
Art, life, and healing
Danny is an artist, and this shapes the way that he sees things, and how he connects with people. I’ve heard multiple other readers say that this book felt healing in spite of its heavier moments. This rings true to me, and I think that Danny’s artist perspective is crucial to this: it shapes the way we see life through his eyes, and see him and the other characters as we come to understand them.
Art doesn’t change the ending. It doesn’t let you lose yourself that way — the opposite, really; it calls you from the darkness, into the glaring, unforgiving light. But at least — this is why it will always feel like a calling to me — it lets you not be so alone.-p224
As evident from the above quotes, I adored the writing in this book — it genuinely felt like a teen’s voice whilst also being reflective and insightful in ways I’d truly never come across up until that point. Picture Us in the Light really helped me to see expanded possibilities of what books could achieve, and I’d point to it as compulsory reading for anyone who wants their work to be meaningful and empathic.
Overall, I mean it when I say that if you take only one recommendation from my blog, please make it Picture Us in the Light. My only additional note is that Kelly Loy Gilbert has a new book, When We Were Infinite, coming out in March 2021, which I’m sure I’ll love just as much.
About the author
Kelly Loy Gilbert believes deeply in the power of stories to illuminate a shared humanity and give voice to complex, broken people. She is the author of Conviction, a William C. Morris Award finalist, and Picture Us in the Light, and lives in the SF Bay Area.