Review: Picture Us in the Light

Picture Us in the Light

Title: Picture Us in the Light
Author: Kelly Loy Gilbert
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 361
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
Availability: Available now!

Summary: 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. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: I loved Picture Us in the Light, end of story. Full disclosure: I’m basically incapable of producing an objective review, given that I grew up adjacent to Danny’s hometown of Cupertino, and attended Danny’s rival school. Now that that’s out of the way (just kidding, I’m totally circling back to this), let’s get to the actual review.

Picture Us in the Light is set in Silicon Valley, in a majority Asian town, and follows Danny Cheng as he nervously anticipates his acceptance to RISD, where he can fulfill all his dreams as an artist. His future seems all laid out, but he discovers family secrets and grapples with a past tragedy — all of which shape and warp his relationships with his best friends and his parents.

Danny’s story comes together in flashbacks and memories and small moments captured in the present, much like his art. With his future looming, family secrets coming to light, and past tragedy giving way to even more secrets, there’s a lot happening. And with worse execution, it would have felt crowded. Instead, every piece fits just right, and the sum of its parts is something greater, more melancholy and meaningful than you would expect.

My favorite part of the book happens early on, when Danny shares a soul-baring conversation with his best friend Harry. (Aside: No one told me that Danny was queer! Twitter, you have failed me.) That moment, and many more moments in the book, felt so real to me. This is where my Cupertino-adjacent upbringing makes me biased. All the little details and conversations were ones I recognized and had lived to a certain extent: The pressure-cooker academic environment of a Silicon Valley high school, the Ranch 99 grocery bags, hiking at Fremont Older, the constant refrain of “aiya!”, and kicking it at the Cupertino library. It was pretty much like reliving my teenage years, but with 80% more plot twists.

Picture Us in the Light also gets into some heavy topics, be warned: Depression, suicide, and immigration, among others. The issues were handled well and sensitively, in my opinion. Mental health is a very real problem in hyper-competitive schools in Silicon Valley, and that’s something that this book doesn’t shy away from. And in a time when immigrant families are even more vulnerable than before, Picture Us in the Light feels incredibly relevant.

Honestly, I can’t recommend Picture Us in the Light enough. I want to say something cliched and punny about pictures and a thousand words, but I’m not sure what, so I’ll leave you with this: Picture Us in the Light is beautiful and moving and important. Just read it.

Recommendation: Buy it now!

Extra reading: Check out our Rich in Color author interview with Kelly Loy Gilbert here!