Not as bad as I’d feared – but not as good as I’d hoped.
(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Netgalley. This review contains clearly marked spoilers.)
A door swings open, dinging a bell. I recognize the next sound: the deliberate but controlled steps, treading gently, as if she’s trying not to leave footprints. I’ve never seen a footprint, of course, but my understanding is that the harder you press, the more of an impression you leave behind.
Sixteen-year-old Will Porter has attended boarding schools and summer camps for blind and visually impaired kids his whole life – but now it’s time to go mainstream. Will wants to finish out his high school career in his hometown of Toano, Kansas – even if it’s over the vociferous objections of his over-stressed helicopter mom. Unfortunately, Will’s first day in public school is a bit of a disaster: he gropes a random girl in the stairwell, makes a fellow classmate cry, and plops down on yet another student’s lap in the caf.
But Will quickly finds his niche in Toano High School. He takes a shining to journalism, where the teacher – Mrs. Everbrook – treats him like every other student. He partners up with and eventually befriends Cecily, whose knack for photography complements Will’s way with words. He falls in with Nick, Ion, and Whitford who, along with Cecily, represent the entirety of Toano High’s academic quiz team. Will even convinces Cecily to try out for the morning announcer cohosting gig, despite her obvious – and inexplicable – reluctance.
And then, just a few months into the semester, Will’s mom drops a bombshell in his lap. At the hospital where his father works, there’s an experimental surgery to “cure” blindness that’s accepting applicants. The operation is a two-stage process: a retinal stem cell transplant, followed by a corneal transplant within two weeks. Even if it’s successful, the surgery comes with a whole bunch of risks: Will’s body could reject the new corneas, while the immunosuppressant drugs will leave him susceptible to common illnesses such as the flu. If the new eyes “take,” Will will have to rewire his brain to properly perceive and process all the unfamiliar, overwhelming visual input. It’s not as simple as waking up and being able to see; rather, Will will have to learn how to perform this new task that his eyes and brain have never done before.
The primary conflict in the story is how this surgery impacts Will’s budding romance with Cecily. Love and First Sight is one of those books that sounds like it could be really awful and offensive … but might (just might!) prove unexpectedly subversive and progressive. (See, e.g., The Continent. I added it to my TBR early on, only to drop it when the Twitter commentary started rolling in.) As it turns out, Love and First Sight falls somewhere in between.
** Caution: Possible spoilers ahead! **
The synopsis kind of skirts around Cecily’s appearance, making it sound like maybe she’s merely “ugly” (with a big nose, à la Roxanne, perhaps?), while her friends, in a bid to hook these two crazy kids up, talk Cecily up to be some kind of international, smoking hot supermodel. When Will finally gets his first sight of her, his shallow side wins out. Or at least this is the impression I got from the description. Thankfully, what I feared might happen does not actually come to pass.
Rather, Cecily has a large, purplish birthmark that covers the upper half of her face, earning her the nickname “Batgirl.” (In my fantasies, I dreamed of an alternate universe where Cecily owned this slur, reappropriated it even, and strutted around the halls of Toano High wearing gold Doc Martens and a purple cape, wielding her digital camera like a weapon.) Her friends – and Cecily herself – simply fail to mention this one very obvious and defining feature when describing her to Will.
When Will is finally able to see her – or rather, understand that the lines and angles he’s seeing do indeed make up the face that is Cecily’s – he notes the existence of the birthmark. He understands that Cecily’s face doesn’t look quite like all the other faces he’s seeing, but doesn’t automatically classify this as a bad thing. Having never been bombarded with images of ideal or traditional beauty, Will has no opinion on the birthmark either way. He already loves Cecily, and he finds her beautiful. The whole of her, inside and out.
Yet the story needs conflict, so rather than be upset that she’s “ugly” (Will openly bristles when his mom refers to the birthmark as a “disfigurement”), Will is angry that Cecily lied to him. That she kept this one Very Significant thing to herself. That she didn’t want to go out of her way talk about being bullied, to delve into the source of this shame and embarrassment when she could just as easily not. Will interprets it as Cecily taking advantage of his blindness to feel better about herself, but that’s a really selfish and self-centered way of looking at things. Especially coming from a guy who, for example, left his sunglasses at home on the first day of school because he didn’t want to draw unnecessary attention to himself. Like Cecily, Will wants desperately to fit in, to not be defined by a congenital condition that he didn’t choose and that does not define the whole of him. You’d think he’d cut Cecily a little slack, you know?
Instead, he goes on a pretty childish rampage, deleting his comments on her Facebook page and then defriending her altogether. He even tosses the box of photographs she gave him in the garbage, and then dumps a jar of mayo on the pile for good measure. I guess, as a 38-year-old, I should cut teenagers some slack, but it all feels pretty overly dramatic and out of proportion to the (perceived) offense.
On the positive side, the rift only lasts about twenty pages, so there’s that.
Look. I get that the story needs some sort of tension, but I much rather would’ve seen it play out between Will and a society that says he couldn’t/shouldn’t/wouldn’t love a girl like Cecily. That’s where the cultural critique is at.
** End of spoilers. **
As for the rest of the story, it’s pretty evenly split between things I love, and things I hated. The scenes between Will and Cecily are mostly lovely. I really enjoyed watching them interact, particularly those times when Cecily struggled to find the right words to describe a sensory experience to Will (and vice versa). Based on actual research, Will’s quest to gain sight is fascinating. And though I’m not blind – nor do I have close friends or family members who are – Sundquist seems to do a good job of detailing how visually impaired folks experience the world, and navigate one shaped by “the tyranny of the visual.”
On the downside, the male characters all feel pretty juvenile. For example, upon leaning that Will’s dad is a surgeon, Nick insists that all male urologists must be gay, because why else would a straight guy want to look at penises professionally? (Also apparently there are only two settings, straight or gay.) Will comments on the principal’s fat rolls several times, and Whitford is weirdly, regressively possessive of his girlfriend. Given how sensitively Sundquist handles Will’s visual impairment, all these other microaggressions are especially annoying. (Ion rightfully calls Nick homophobic, thankfully, but all the other aforementioned incidents go unchallenged.)
And then there’s the joke about sexual assault, right there in the very first chapter. When navigating the stairwell, Will accidentally grabs a girl’s breast. An honest mistake, and it would’ve been excusable if not for this bit:
That’s what a white cane will do for you: Not only can you get away with copping a feel, the girl assumes it was her fault and apologizes for it. Let me assure you, random girl, you have nothing to be sorry about. Completely my fault. And my pleasure.
Nope nope nope. Intentionally grabbing someone else’s body parts without their permission is sexual assault, full stop. (And yes, this is what we’re talking about here; otherwise there wouldn’t be anything to “get away” with. Plus, if it’s truly an accident, wouldn’t you feel chagrined, as opposed to smugly self-satisfied?) In fact this seems to be the go-to M.O. of our President-Elect, which Sundquist probably didn’t know when writing this story, but makes it all the more offensive to see now.
Honestly, I almost threw in the towel then and there. Proceed as you will.
Comments (May contain spoilers!)
Diversity: Yes. MC Will Porter has congenital blindness. After attending boarding schools and summer camps for blind and visually impaired kids, he’s decided to finish out his high school career in public schools. We watch as he “mainstreams,” and then undergoes experimental surgery to give him sight.
His best friend/girlfriend Cecily has a large purple birthmark that covers the top half of her face, earning her the nickname “Batgirl.” She’s constantly bullied for her appearance, and she finds refuge behind the lens of her camera. The main conflict in the story is Will, upon gaining sight, discovering that Cecily and their friends lied to him about her appearance, by neglecting to tell him about the birthmark.
Cecily’s parents are divorced. When her father has a stroke, she goes to California to be with him.
Mutual friend Whitford is African-American; both his parents, the Drs. Washington, are professors at nearby PU.
Mrs. Chin, one of Will’s old teachers, was maybe Asian (“I can’t say for sure since we didn’t talk about that kind of stuff, but I think Mrs. Chin was Chinese American.”).
Dr. Bianchi is an immigrant from Italy.
Updated to add: You may also find this recent article on The Establishment relevant: The ‘Miraculous Cure’ Trope Is Not The Disability Representation We Need.
Animal-friendly elements: n/a