Review | If You Could See the Sun, by Ann Liang

IfYouCouldThis book has an interesting premise. Alice’s power of invisibility is a fitting metaphor for her feeling unseen by her peers. (I feel like Buffy did an episode around this too, so it’s definitely a relatable theme for teens.)

I like the class struggle stuff, and how much Alice’s ambition and anti-heroic actions are tied to the unfortunate reality that she’s just starting with a lot less than her classmates and has to do a million times more work just to keep up. There’s a great moment where she remembers getting second place to Henry in a contest and cried, coz she’d worked really hard to win the RMB500 prize while Henry just entered the contest last-minute on a whim. The win also didn’t mean as much to him, and he barely even remembered the contest at all. I like how Henry always viewed their rivalry as friendly while Alice saw it as much more serious, because she had so much more at stake with winning.

There’s some sadly realistic scenes depicting racism, mostly from a white teacher at the school. In one scene, she calls Alice by another student’s name, even though they look nothing alike.

The concept of Beijing Ghost is compelling. The author did a good job of showing the escalation of the tasks students hired Alice to do, from rather sordid but standard spy jobs that gradually intensify towards outright criminal acts.

The romance between Alice and Henry is sweet, but mostly meh. Alice never really seemed too much into Henry at all, so the random flirty scenes didn’t really do much for me. I do like how Alice’s developing friendships with Henry and Chanel helped her integrate a bit more deeply into the school social life. The author does a good job in showing just how much privilege wealthy students with powerful parents can have.

The book falls short for me on two fronts:

First, the task that eventually leads to the novel’s climax and denouement requires Alice to perform a criminal act. I sympathize with her desperation to earn enough money to stay in school, and I agree that any penalties should be meted out fairly. But the fallout from her actions did not at all feel satisfactory. I expected there to be more consequence, or at least more character development as a result of this experience. Instead, the main message seems to be that her actions were totally understandable and justifiable, and the blame really lies within the classist school system. Which is far too simplistic and totally overlooks Alice’s complicity in her own actions.

The big confrontation was a total non-event. The other party involved, the ‘evil mastermind’, so to speak, was barely even a force to be reckoned with. Alice’s big gesture to reclaim power didn’t seem anywhere near as much a death blow as the scene made it seem, and the way ‘good’ characters just seemed to get off unscathed bothered me. As terrible as the ‘evil mastermind’ was, I actually found myself wishing he got off as lightly as the main characters did, because the whole resolution just felt too neat and perfect.

The other big snag for me was that Alice’s invisibility was a convenient tool yet never quite fully delved into. And on one hand, that’s fine — I like magical realism as much as the next person, and think magical elements should exist in fiction without being explained to death. But there was a scene with Alice’s aunt that made me think the aunt had personal knowledge of Alice’s superpower, like maybe invisibility or various superpowers ran in their family under certain circumstances. That thread intrigued me, yet it was dropped completely. Even a bit of added insight from the aunt would have helped enrich the mythos of Alice’s invisibility; instead, it exists mostly as just a convenient plot tool.

Overall, this is a good book. The beginning was slow, and the book never really super hooked me. But I like the class stuff tackled in the story, and I just wish the ending had packed a bit more punch.


Thanks to Inkyard Press for an e-galley of the book in exchange for an honest review.

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