Goodreads: If You Could See the Sun
Age Category: Young Adult
Source: Published for review
Publication Date: October 11, 2022
In this genre-bending YA debut, a Chinese American girl monetizes her strange new invisibility powers by discovering and selling her wealthy classmates’ most scandalous secrets.
Alice Sun has always felt invisible at her elite Beijing international boarding school, where she’s the only scholarship student among China’s most rich and influential teens. But then she starts uncontrollably turning invisible—actually invisible.
When her parents drop the news that they can no longer afford her tuition, even with the scholarship, Alice hatches a plan to monetize her strange new power—she’ll discover the scandalous secrets her classmates want to know, for a price.
But as the tasks escalate from petty scandals to actual crimes, Alice must decide if it’s worth losing her conscience—or even her life.
If You Could See the Sun, set in an international school in China where the protagonist is the only scholarship student in a sea of the children of the rich and famous, feels fun and fresh, even as it takes on popular tropes like academic rivals-to-lovers and a protagonist who suddenly finds herself invisible and able to discover the secrets of others.
I enjoyed the detailed setting and the author’s vivid descriptions both of China and the school itself, a distinctly different environment from the local public schools, which protagonist Alice makes very clear with her reluctance to have to transfer to one when her parents inform her they will not be able to pay the tuition for the next semester at her current school. Liang brings the place to life, grounding readers with Alice, the only economically average student in the entire school. (Her status is so unusual, in fact, that the other students are all completely unaware she is not breathtakingly wealthy like them.)
I enjoyed the plot of the novel, and I think this is one area Liang excels. She clearly positions Alice as a star student whose main goal in life is to succeed academically, then demonstrates the increasing risks Alice is willing to take in order to earn enough money to stay at her school. The stakes get higher as the book goes on, and the love interest gets more and more invested and closer to admitting his love.
I do wish there were a little more exploration of Alice’s character beyond her intelligence and ambition, however. While she takes on some morally questionable tasks for cash, the reader really has no idea whether this is “out of character” for her or not. Alice mentions close to the end of the story that her mother’s greatest wish for her is to be a good person but . . . is she one before the start of the book? I mainly got the sense she stays out of the way of others and is a more or less neutral entity, not being kind to others but not being mean (largely because she can’t have a reputation as being unkind if she wants to make connections and succeed in life, so this is pretty calculated). Her one defining personality trait is her academics, and Liang really focuses on that to the exclusion of other traits.
(I tried to be vague in the next paragraph, but some people might consider it spoilery. Skip it if you dislike spoilers of any kind!)
I also was a bit taken aback by the end of the story, where Alice takes on a final, horrifically criminal task that could result in serious harm to a fellow student. The book really struggles what to do with this, ultimately suggesting her actions were rather understandable and forgivable because she didn’t fit in with the rich kids at school and really needed the money for her tuition. (If only the school had given her a larger scholarship, Alice and the book argue, she would not have needed to resort to such things!) There are some throwaway lines about how, ok, it was a bad thing to do and she shouldn’t have done it, and she faces some minor consequences, but ultimately the book implies it’s not really a big deal.
This doesn’t undermine my enjoyment of the book in general, but I admit I am not fully on board with the ethics here, and I got the sense the author herself might have been struggling a bit to reconcile the book’s message about class differences and admitting that, uh, the protagonist did something truly terrible and should perhaps be accountable for that. (Also one of her accomplices was one of the rich kids, who clearly was not doing this because he needed money, and that’s just glossed over.)
Overall, however, this is a fun, quick read that touches on a few serious topics and feels like something a bit different in the YA space. I would recommend checking it out.