I feel like I’ve done something terribly wrong
when all along
I’ve just been trying
to be good
This Impossible Light is a young adult novel in verse about Ivy, a fifteen year-old whose body betrays her as it grows, takes up the space left behind by her shrinking mother, leaving father, and missing best friend. As Ivy strives to perfection she comes to the seemingly logical conclusion that perfect lives in a place that can only be reached by restricting food and hours of biking up Seattle’s endless hills.
Before I go further I will explicitly say that this book, while beautiful and a book I think is a must-read—particularly for those who are or know teenage girls—comes with a giant trigger warning for disordered eating.
This Impossible Light is Meyers’s first novel, grown from the themes of her award-winning slam poetry piece, Shrinking Women, about the accidental inheritance of the women in her family, the messages passed along like the uneaten bread crumbs along the path. She’s also published a few articles online and in anthologies, largely about modern feminism.
Novel in Verse
I have not picked up many novels in verse, with Brown Girl Dreaming one of the first (if not the first) I can remember reading. I’ve never been a particular fan of most poetry—I enjoy it but I always feel like I’m trying really hard to like it more than I actually do. (The struggles of the book-snob life are real.) With well done novels in verse, I don’t run into the problems I do with other poetry—there are metaphors, sure, and there is meaning beyond the immediate words—but there is also a plot and character development so I feel like I can see where the poem is going and the message its conveying. I know the point of view of the speaker, I know her struggles and the supporting characters in her life. So when she tells me something, I know more of what she is saying that just the words on the page. Her life gives me the background I need to see the metaphor. With this foundation, I can appreciate the cadence and the crescendos—I can appreciate the poetry as poetry.
This Impossible Light satisfied my taste in novels in verse—the writing was spot on, the word choice itself fairly straightforward and easy enough for a middle schooler, though thematically (both for the disordered eating and kids that party their way into alcohol poisoning), I wouldn’t recommend this book until 8th grade. It had the cadence of a spoken word poem, with many poems standing alone with an internal crescendo. The individual sections themselves built to internal conclusions, with the poems speeding up, feeling more frantic, as Ivy’s loses hold on the control she’s desperately seeking to gain by restricting her food.
So was everyone else really being this “bad” in high school?
It has seemed that over the last several months, every book I read set in high school features kids partying and/or sleeping around. My first thought is usually that I’m getting old and kids these days are drinking way more and having more sex than we were in high school. Shortly after this thought comes a sneaking suspicion that probably everyone else was drinking this much and having (almost) this much sex and just no one was talking to me about it because I would absolutely have judged them for it (I wasn’t very kind in high school). It’s funny how reading YA has made me realize how sheltered my own high school existence was—sheltered both by my parents and by the other kids leaving me out of things. (It’s okay. I eventually turned out alright.)
Here too I identify with Ivy. She was actually invited to the party (I was too—exactly one time) and drank a little bit before deciding it wasn’t for her. I deeply appreciated that Myers’s main character wasn’t into drinking, that she felt left out and somehow younger than everyone else when she made this choice. This resonated with what I remember feeling in high school. In many ways, Myers undercurrent of self-acceptance and self-love in This Impossible Light extends not only to Ivy’s body but also to her likes and dislikes. That math worksheets or watching movies with your mom can be an entirely acceptable way to spend a weekend.
When you’re told enough times
the way you are
it doesn’t seem like
you’re allowed to be
From experience the “good girl” thing becomes a double-edged sword. On the one hand, knowing that you’re a math nerd at heart can be a thing to embrace, though the line between self-nerd-love and defining yourself as the perfect mathlete, perfect scholar, perfect daughter can be razor sharp.
Though I never really fell prey to true disordered eating, I can identify with Ivy’s desperate need for control. I am a perfectionist at heart—if I’m perfect, if the world I order is perfect, then no one can be disappointed. There is no room for upset—either literal or emotional—from me or anyone else. Indeed, this need for control, the high-achieving perfectionism as a response to a less than perfect home life (which, side note—no one’s home life is ever perfect. That’s a myth we should just give up now) made Ivy seem familiar, as if I were looking at a version of myself in high school. I do not think this need for control is unusual and, though I have absolutely nothing to back this up beyond my own subjective experience, I think it is likely that this sort of desire for control lies at the heart of most high-achiever girls. That “perfectionism” is just a pretty word we use to describe someone with an intense need to control their environment and themself.
As I indicated early on, I do think this is a novel most people should read—particularly anyone who teaches or interacts with teenagers. There is no right way to be a person when you’re a teenager—you can love what you love and hate what you hate—but the struggle is not having those things become what defines you. Part of the way you learn to love yourself without having the things you love become the things that rule your life (whether that be math or boys or both) is by having teachers, parents, and friends who walk that line with you—who show you where the difference is between healthy self-love and unhealthy obsession. Books like This Impossible Light can be signposts on that journey—both for the teenage girl and for the adults in her life. If you are in a place where you can read a book about disordered eating that includes the internal monologue of the person caught up in it, then this is a book I highly recommend.
Published: June 6, 2017 by Philomel Books (@philomel), imprint of Penguin Random House (@penguinrandomhouse)
Author: Lily Myers
Date read: February 3, 2018
Rating: 4 stars