The first thing I do when I start writing a book review is to categorize the book I’ve just read into one more more genres, to help future readers browse this site and more easily find the kind of books they want to read. The only category I had for Rebecca Dinerstein’s The Sunlit Night was literary fiction, because there’s no sub-genre for “finding oneself.” Literary fiction comes the closest to accurately representing what this book is. The Sunlit Night is a melancholy book, revolving around two young protagonists whose worlds have just fallen apart. Frances has just graduated from art school and learned that her parents are divorcing. Yasha has just lost his father and is struggling to find a path through life that hasn’t been drawn out by his parents.
We meet Frances after she is dumped in the most callous fashion by her boyfriend. Coming home to regroup isn’t really an option as Frances is abruptly told on her arrival by her parents that they’re divorcing. Frances feels that her only option is to accept the apprenticeship offer she’d previously rejected and spend the summer painting a barn and a mural in the Lofoten Islands, Norway. We never really get to learn much about Frances-as-artist. Instead, we learn about Frances through the eyes of Yasha. Yasha has arrived in Lofoten to bury his father, who’s last wish was to be buried as far north as possible. Yasha had lived with his father above their Brooklyn Bakery before they took what turned out to be a last trip back to Moscow.
I feel much more sympathy for Yasha than for Frances. Being 17-about-to-be-18 is hard enough without trying to figure out how to support oneself. On top of coping with his father’s passing, Yasha has to contend with his mother’s attempts to barrel back into his life after leaving him 10 years earlier. In his eyes, Frances is steady, quiet, someone to lean on while he deals with his now un-pent up emotions. There is some tension when the characters misunderstand or just miss each other, raising The Sunlit Night above the usual sober literary/finding oneself plot. All that said, I feel the most sympathy for the Norwegians and other people Frances and Yasha stir up in Lofoten. They were just quietly living their lives—painting barns or running the Viking Museum—when the two Americans crash-landed among them with all their feelings.
Even after reading this book, I still wonder why young middle class white people fell the need to travel to the ends of the earth to figure themselves out. Towards the end of The Sunlit Night, Frances reflects:
I had come to get out of the city, and away from the family to who I belonged. I had found a country covered in sour blueberries, foxes, rocks, and one-land roads that were drawn in the same shape as the shoreline. I had met Nils, Yasha, his mother, a few make-believe Vikings. I didn’t belong to any of them, and they didn’t belong to me…The waves rolling out said: Nothing here is yours to keep. (180*)
The facile answer is that these young’uns are running to the ends of the earth to escape all ties to their past. When they (and we) say “finding oneself,” what we really mean is that someone is finally creating their own identity without parents’ or siblings’ or friends’ expectations limiting that someone. But that doesn’t seem like what’s happening in The Sunlit Night. The characters remain a little too opaque for the easy answer. They develop a little over the course of the book, but there are too many things about them—Frances’ painting, for example—that are left by the wayside.
* Quote is from the 2015 kindle edition, published by Bloomsbury.