Ursula K. LeGuin’s GIFTS was yet another book for which my reading experience was massively distorted by assuming the story was building to one thing and… being wrong.
And I mean that for more than half the book, I was enjoying what I thought was “foreshadowing” related to the ending that I thought had been announced to us. And embarrassingly enough, I don’t think LeGuin was trying to mislead us and then provide a twist; I think I just misunderstood.
GIFTS is a great book, though, for at least two reasons. One is that it has some of the best description of grief that I have ever read. For example, this paragraph, from a longer passage that’s all extremely well done:
So I call it in my mind: The dark year.
To try to tell it is like trying to tell the passage of a sleepless night. Nothing happens. One thinks, and dreams briefly, and wakes again; fears loom and pass, and ideas won’t come clear, and meaningless words haunt the mind, and the shudder of nightmare brushes by, and time seems not to move, and it’s dark, and nothing happens.
(This kind of metaphor fits the character, by the way; it’s not like a lot of lesser YA where you have a kind of inarticulate protagonist who’s suddenly spouting all this poetic wisdom about whatever philosophical point the author’s trying to make.)
The other thing that I appreciated about GIFTS is that the love interest is a real person. There’s a lovely scene where said love interest, whose name is Gry, offers a theory about the gifts at the heart of the book (and it’s a fascinating theory that I didn’t anticipate). And our protagonist Orrec narrates:
I knew from her voice that she was saying something important to her. It had to do with her use of her own gift, but I wasn’t certain what it was.
This stood out to me because it is astoundingly rare that love interests in teen novels have their own struggles, rather than being preternaturally patient and infinitely wise vehicles for the protagonist’s journey. The blogger Ames has described the particular pattern where it’s an all-knowing boyfriend as Sarah Dessen Syndrom (you can tell this made a big impression on me because I’ve remarked on it several times, which might reflect defensiveness about the deep and bizarre joy I get from Dessen’s books). LeGuin, here, does a very nice job of keeping the focus on Orrec’s struggle while making us certain that neither Gry nor Orrec is thinking only about him.
It made it a deeper romance, in the sense that I didn’t just want the two to end up together because I cared about one of them and had been told that’s what he wanted. Like, when I read Dessen’s THE TRUTH ABOUT FOREVER, I feel very strongly about the protagonist Macy getting the love interest Wes. But it’s only because I’ve grown to care about Macy, and it’s clear that’s what she wants (and, I mean, understandably; Wes is the ultimate fantasy boyfriend, the humble, artistic hottie who sees Macy like no one else does. It’s a bit absurd, actually).
Here, I felt something different. I cared about Orrec and Gry, and I believed that their best shot at life was together. I believed that being together would let them figure out the considerable challenges they faced. Isn’t that the essence of romance? I feel sickly sentimental just writing it. Yet for someone who reads teen romances with alarming voraciousness, I’m finding this a rare surprise.