Review of “The Light We Lost” by Jill Santopolo

The dedication for this book reads “For New York City” and in fact, September 11, 2001 is a seminal moment in the story, and a turning point in the life of the main protagonist, Lucy. Lucy narrates this book in the form of a letter to Gabe, whom she met 13 years earlier at Columbia University in New York on 9/11; she was 21.

Gabe was an aspiring photographer, and Lucy admired that about him; that he knew how to find beauty everywhere and in everything. “You notice things other people don’t.”

At that time, Lucy didn’t know what she wanted to do yet; she was trying to figure out for herself the answer to the question “What makes a life well spent?” She told Gabe:

“I think it might have something to do with making a mark – in a positive way. Leaving the world a little bit better than it was when you found it.”

And on that day, 9/11, given what happened, she vowed to herself that she would live her life in a way that would give back.

Gabe felt that way too.

Gabe and Lucy eventually got into a relationship; Gabe was the first man who ever said “I love you” to Lucy. They were together fourteen months, living together for five of them, and for Lucy, they were life-changing. She told him, “I’ve never felt as alive as I did those five months we lived together.”

Lucy liked to think of the two of them as “a binary star,” orbiting around each other.

But Gabe had demons from his childhood that controlled his choices, and battling them took precedence over everything else in his life. He also felt he couldn’t just sit back and not try to contribute, by way of the candid images he captured, to an increase in compassion and caring in the world. Without consulting Lucy, he decided to take a job with the AP, going to war-torn countries and documenting what was happening to civilians.

In addition, Gabe thought that there was some sort of karma operating in the world by which people only get a finite amount of happiness, so that the joy he felt with Lucy had to be balanced somehow with suffering and sacrifice. Lucy didn’t agree, but she never could convince Gabe.

So Gabe left, and he and Lucy went their separate ways, at least physically. They each met others, and Lucy even got married to Darren – steady and reliable, who metaphorically provided her with a “hearth fire” instead of a “wildfire” as when she was in a relationship with Gabe. Darren “wasn’t dark and complicated – being with him was fun and easy,” even if sometimes less than exciting.

But Lucy missed how Gabe saw her, understanding her without wanting to change her. In her letter she says to Gabe: “You wanted me because of. Darren wanted me in spite of.”

Still, she had responsibilities, including, eventually, children. She would never have changed having had her children even if it meant never again feeling “infinite and invincible” as she did with Gabe.

Nevertheless, Lucy and Gabe remained connected in many ways. So what happened to them and why is Lucy writing this letter in which she confesses so much? We don’t find out until nearly the very end.

Discussion: I felt Lucy was drawn better than the male characters, who seemed much more cardboard-like. We only get small glimpses of them, reflected by Lucy’s complaints or occasionally praise. Darren was a bit chauvinistic and controlling, more committed to Lucy as (ironically) a cardboard construct than to the person she really was. Gabe was passionately engaged with life and with Lucy, but so emotionally conflicted it disabled him. As a reader, however, I never felt like I “knew” either of them, nor did I fully understand them. As for Lucy, she complained about Gabe being too much about Gabe, but she was pretty much all about Lucy, and neither of the two of them – not just Gabe, as Lucy charged – were good at communicating their wants and needs.

Evaluation: While I liked the story a lot and it was very affecting, I thought some aspects of the plot and characters were a little under-developed and/or too ambiguous. On the other hand, a book club might have good discussions about this book for those very reasons.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2017

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2 Responses to Review of “The Light We Lost” by Jill Santopolo

  1. Sarah's Book Shelves says:

    Oh man – I was considering this one b/c I was about the characters’ age when 9/11 happened and moved to NYC 3 months after the attacks. But, I’m disappointed that the characters weren’t drawn too well.

  2. Those fire metaphors are pretty and could probably speak to many readers. It does sound like Santopolo has a way with words. From her biography, she was actually a book editor before becoming an author and has some kids and YA books out, too. Thanks for the honest review; those are the most difficult for me to write.

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