Thank you to Dutton Books for Young Readers/Penguin/Edelweiss for a copy of A Scatter of Light in exchange for an honest review.
Aria Tang West was looking forward to a summer on Martha’s Vineyard with her best friends — one last round of sand and sun before college. But after a graduation party goes wrong, Aria’s parents exile her to California to stay with her grandmother, artist Joan West. Aria expects boredom, but what she finds is Steph Nichols, her grandmother’s gardener.
Soon, Aria is second-guessing who she is and what she wants to be, and a summer that once seemed lost becomes unforgettable — for Aria, her family, and the working-class queer community Steph introduces her to. It’s the kind of summer that changes a life forever. — from the publisher.
There’s something about reading a book by Malinda Lo that always feels like coming home. A prominent element in A Scatter of Light and its predecessor, Last Night at the Telegraph Club, is that they’re set in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I grew up. I’m a sucker for reading about places I know, ground I’ve actually tread.
And perhaps it’s that trodden ground that makes A Scatter of Light so painful. Aria makes poor choices, and we’re not supposed to think she’s making good ones, but it’s still hard to read. It is hard to watch someone barrel down a collision course and have no way to stop them. Especially when you know what’s going to happen, but you’re still gonna watch because the crash is gonna be epic.
It’s becoming more common, but it’s still rare to see masculinity in women celebrated. Period. Full Stop. But, at least in the world of YA literature, Mirando Lo has carved out a little haven that celebrates the downright hotness of butch women (and all women, really). While these labels of butch and lesbian were more specifically drawn in Last Night at the Telegraph Club (set in the 1950s) than in A Scatter of Light (set in 2013), that makes sense to me.
I’m not sure how Aria or Steph would identify themselves in the present day — and Lo puts a pretty fine point on that when we meet Aria in 2023, and she doesn’t talk about her identity but instead about her work and her friends and family.
*Light spoilers ahead.
Some of the themes and tropes in A Scatter of Light worked better for me than others. Surprise! Everyone’s gay! It always works because it’s true — if you’re queer, chances are, people in your friend group are as well. Y’all might not know it yet, though.
What I could stand to do without, however, is the constant need for fiction to make someone’s cheated-on partner “the bad guy” to mollify the audience. It doesn’t justify cheating; it doesn’t make the affair somehow “less bad.” Characters don’t have to be perfect. Humans aren’t perfect. Sometimes good people do bad things. And sometimes, characters are just bad people.
Should you read it?
Yes, but make sure you’re in the headspace for bittersweet. A Scatter of Light deals with some dark and heavy themes but ends in a hopeful place. The juxtaposition of science and art against the backdrop of the repeal of California’s Proposition 8 was cool. I also enjoyed the minor life update on Lily and Kath from Last Night at the Telegraph Club.
A Scatter of Light is out on October 4, 2022. Pick up a copy at your local indie bookstore or library. 📚🌌🎨
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