On his first day at a new school, blind sixteen-year-old Will Porter accidentally groped a girl on the stairs, sat on another student in the cafeteria, and somehow drove a classmate to tears. High school can only go up from here, right?
As Will starts to find his footing, he develops a crush on a charming, quiet girl named Cecily. Then an unprecedented opportunity arises: an experimental surgery that could give Will eyesight for the first time in his life. But learning to see is more difficult than Will ever imagined, and he soon discovers that the sighted world has been keeping secrets. It turns out Cecily doesn’t meet traditional definitions of beauty–in fact, everything he’d heard about her appearance was a lie engineered by their so-called friends to get the two of them together. Does it matter what Cecily looks like? No, not really. But then why does Will feel so betrayed?
Told with humor and breathtaking poignancy, Love and First Sight is a story about how we related to each other and the world around us.
First things first: I really would like to see some reviews of this book from people who are blind. Because I don’t know just how “right” Sundquist gets the many feelings about and experiences of being blind. That is not to say that that there is any one universal way to feel or one universal experience, obviously. Or that I think Sundquist is getting it “wrong.” After I read/review a book, I look for other reviews, especially when the subject matter is far out of my realm of experience and I’d really like to see reviews by people who share an identity with the main characters in the book. So, own voices reviews. After I wrote up my thoughts on this book, I poked around online and didn’t see any reviews yet that are from people who are fully or partially blind. Hoping once the book officially is out and the ebook and audiobook are out, that will change.
Will, 16, has started at a traditional school (or been “mainstreamed”) for the first time in his life, after spending all of his years in school being surrounded by other blind and visually-impaired people. He doesn’t want an aide (nor does he need one); he just wants to be as independent as possible. He doesn’t want people to feel sorry for him or feel that his life is any less full because he is blind. He encounters various attitudes, from his overly “helpful” principal who clearly has no clue how to interact with him and makes sure to point out that he’s “special” and “different,” to his great English and journalism teacher who makes it clear that she will hold him to all of the same expectations as the rest of the class. After a few initial embarrassing moments, Will gets into the swing of things and adjusts well to the change. He makes friends quickly—Nick, Ion, Whitford, and Cecily, all members of the quiz team. He grows particularly close with Cecily, whom he has journalism class with and ends up auditioning for the schools news with. They work on assignments together and hang out and Will is pretty sure he’s falling for Cecily. We get little hints that something may be up with her. We find out she’s been bullied most of her life. What we don’t find out, until later, is that Cecily has a rather large birthmark covering the top half of her face—a purple kind of “mask” that leads her classmates to have called her “Batgirl” for years. No one tells Will about this, though.
Will undergoes an experimental operation (retinal stem cell transplant) in the hopes of gaining full eyesight. The surgery is very risky, and not just for the reasons you might think. If successful, Will will have eyesight for the first time in his life. The visual cortex of his brain has developed differently than that of someone with eyesight and the learning curve (and adjustment to the flood of new information) will be steep. Fewer than 20 people have gone from total blindness to sight (an actual statistic, which we see in the author’s extensive note on his research). Will’s dad, a doctor, warns Will against the surgery, worried what it will do to him, mentally, if he can suddenly see. But he goes ahead with the surgery, which is successful. Before long, Will can see that Cecily has a birthmark, but he doesn’t think anything of it, really, other than noting her face looks different from other faces he’s seeing. For Will, who has never seen anything before, he just kind of catalogs her face as unlike others, but doesn’t judge her. He still feels she’s beautiful, which was his impression of her before he could see her. He certainly doesn’t see it as a “disfigurement,” which is his mother’s word. He calls it her beauty mark. But, even though he doesn’t suddenly want nothing to do with Cecily because of how she looks, he does feel completely lied to by Cecily and all of their friends. He feels he can’t trust them now. As he notes, everyone is always anxious to describe every single detail of everything to him. So why did they leave out Cecily’s birthmark?
Here’s the obvious discussion about this part of the book: Does the author make it feel like Will the only one who can find Cecily beautiful because he can’t see her (or doesn’t see her until quite late in their relationship)? Or that Will is the only one who can like her because he doesn’t know to think of her birthmark as offputting? Or that Will is the only one who can like her because he can “see beyond” her birthmark? Etc etc. I think Sundquist does a pretty good job of not making this storyline feel cliched, but there’s definitely room for discussion. I did spend a fair amount of time feeling sad that Cecily has such low self-esteem and obviously sees very little value in herself (she doesn’t think she’ll ever have a relationship, she doesn’t like pictures of herself, she worries she’ll hold Will back from winning as news anchor because no one will want her on the TV screen). I also spent a fair amount of time being SUPER irritated at Will’s cheerfully (and naively) optimistic mother, who seems to have ZERO clue about the process of going from being blind to having eyesight. You would think she would have educated herself more (especially given he’s been blind his whole life–she seems to have a fundamental misunderstanding of how his brain works and what his frames of reference may or may not include) or listened for two seconds to her doctor-husband who understands, and explains, the very complicated process Will’s brain is now undergoing.
Though the writing can be a little heavy-handed at times, overall this is an engaging story that seemed to avoid the pitfalls I worried about just based on reading the flap copy. It’s not often a YA book features a blind main character, and Will’s unique story of going from being blind to having eyesight may make readers consider this idea from a new perspective (if they think, as many do, that a blind person would of course want to be able to see). A humorous and thought-provoking read.
Review copy courtesy of the publisher
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Publication date: 01/03/2017