Book Review: Bright Lights, Dark Nights

So. Bright Lights, Dark Nights by  Stephen Emond.

Can we talk about this?

I need to talk about this.

If you’ve not heard of this book, I’ll give you a really short synopsis: The protagonist  a white kid named Walter Wilcox meets a black girl, Naomi Mills and they’re basically perfect for each other. It’s all good and golden a until his cop dad is accused of racial profiling and then the ish hits the fan.

I’ve been curious about this book since I saw it on NetGalley – I requested a copy a because I was intrigued and dying to read it but was declined. So I went and pre-ordered it because I was just that interested.

I was stoked when I got a text from Amazon on the 11th, telling me my book had been delivered and I devoured. I basically read it anytime I wasn’t sleeping, in the shower or at work.

I LOVED Bright Lights, Dark Nights. LOVED it. Like, if it were possible to marry a book, I might be tempted to propose marriage, despite my “I shall never marry!” mantra.

I’ve got so much to say and I’m gonna warn you now that this is gonna be long and possibly rambly because I’m in Book Love and it’s a damn good place to be.

My interest was initial peaked because it’s a book centered on an interracial romance. That interracial romances are still A Thing to get testy about and that we have to defend is seriously depressing to me, but still sadly part of the wonderfully jacked up world we live in. I was tickled that the couple were of different races because this is still not that common in books/movies – especially not in YA books or movies aimed towards youth – and I don’t get why. People are people and love is love and all that jazz.

I was even more interested because it was the girl and not the guy that was black! Let me explain: Damn near anything concerning white/black romances have a white girl and black dude. That’s just the way it is, even though the Supreme Court Case that made miscegenation laws illegal (thank you, Lovings!) consisted of a black woman and white man. Additionally, most black/white couples typically are black dude/white gal, so I found this an interesting change of pace. It also made me feel really good, but I’ll get more into that later.

So anyway, I get my package, rip it open and settle in for a read. And it was beautimous (yes, I made up a word).

There is SO much I liked about this and so much that worked for me that it made it easy to handwave things I had some issues with.

First, I’m gonna go into what I wasn’t crazy about, so I can get to everything else.

I did find that the situation with Walter’s dad and the racial profiling case/scandal resolved far too easily. This is a large chunk of the action and what essentially drives the narrative of the book – it’s this situation that causes issues in and around Walter and Naomi’s relationship and what spurs Walter into his own self-realizations. It’s a huge part of what’s happening and a really important issue and it’s just sort of neatly tied up into a bow. I wish there could have been more exploration here and a bit more nuance.

My issues with how the case played out, I think, ties into my other issue: I think the book is too short. I know, I say that often and part of that is because if I’m really loving a book; really immersed in that world, I don’t want to leave and I could live in it with those characters for eons. That is part of the case here – I loved Walter and Naomi – but there’s also more to it this time.

Bright Lights, Dark Nights deals with some seriously weighty issues all around: racism, interracial relationships, serious family drama, parents with mental issues. Hell, it even lightly touches on the different expectations parents have of female and male children (this comes up concerning Naomi’s dating in general).

That’s … a lot. And 354 pages, including illustrations, just isn’t enough to do it all and give every bit of it justice. There’s such a rich trove of material here. I think we need more books about Walter and Naomi and I hope Mr. Emond sees this and starts writing something posthaste.

But as I said, I loved this book. The two kids are fantastic characters. They feel real and refreshing – very well written, in my opinion. They’re not too childish and not too old for their ages. It’s a perfect portrayal the behaviors of a sixteen and seventeen year old. More than that, it’s a perfect portrayal of a sixteen and seventeen year old falling in love. They take some time in defining what they are and they aren’t smooth about it! Naomi and Walter are both giddy and dorky and embarrassed about how they feel towards one another at the start and it’s beautiful. It really is.

I also love the character of Jason, who’s Naomi’s brother and Walter’s friend. Walter meets Naomi because Jason invites him to dinner at his house. When it comes out that the two are dating, Jason has serious issues with it, one because Naomi is his sister, and two, because Walter’s white. God, I how I loved that.

I know it seems like a silly thing to love, but it’s so true to life. Even people who have friends of other races can have issues when it comes to interracial relationships in their own families. It can become this gigantic hang up that no one actually thought about until the moment it happens. That Jason seems really not to give damn that Walter’s white until he and Naomi get together was so real. Not only that, but Naomi mentions that Jason has dated white girls himself! That had me nodding my head while reading.

There are some black dudes who really have an issue with black girls dating white guys. Not that the opposite doesn’t occur, because it does, but the black women who get ticked when black dudes date white girls don’t typically date white guys themselves. But many black dudes who’ve had interracial relationships can get real testy about a black woman doing the same.

I’m a black woman. I was out once with a male friend of mine who’s white. We were just out, having grabbed some food together and basically nothing about us gave any hint whatsoever that we were a couple. We’re out walking down the block and this black dude comes up to us and starts in on me about how I’m turning my back on black men by being with this guy and I had to be one of those women about money or something, cause that’s what white dudes are good for. He tells me this…while his white date/girlfriend is hanging on to him. Really.

Also, I have to say that I love Naomi and I loved the way the author handled Naomi. She’s spunky, sassy, funny and kind and has varied interests (she plays the harp and is an athlete.) She’s not perfect either. Her mouthiness can get her in trouble and leads to hurt feelings. But she can admit when she’s screwed up.

What was crazy interesting to me is how many guys are into Naomi. So, there’s Walter, who’s basically smitten with her the first time he sees her across the Millses’ dinner table. Then there’s two guys who flirt with her at a concert. There’s another classmate/sort of friend of Walter’s who’s digging her too. This was really important to me.

You can see from the illustrations on the cover and at the end of the book what Naomi and Walter both look like. And it’s clear that Naomi was drawn with a nose that’s a bit broad, like my own and many other black people’s noses. That means so much to me.

Often, when it comes to black women, we’re not considered beautiful. That’s just how it is. We very often don’t fit the Euro-centric standard of beauty that’s particularly present in the US. See the things people say about Serena Williams – she’s gorgeous but people can say such rude things. Usually, if a black woman is considered beautiful, she’s half-white (like Halle Berry or Paula Patton) or has more Euro features (like Kerry Washington)*.

The media and our culture constantly tells us that black women who don’t look to be biracial or a bit Euro aren’t attractive; that we’re not beautiful. We’re always hearing about how black women are the least desirable romantic partners. It’s always depressed me and always made me feel a bit awful about myself. I’m not beautiful, but I’m perfectly normal looking in my opinion. So, that Walter’s head-over-heals for Naomi made me smile. That so many other guys are also into her lightened my heart.

I’ve heard some other people say that they wish we were able to see Naomi’s point of view and the fact that we didn’t was one of the things they didn’t love about the book. I would have loved to see Naomi’s point of view too.

But, here’s the thing:

Bright Lights, Dark Nights is Walter’s story. Yes, Naomi’s an important part of that story, but  he is the protagonist. This story centers on him finding a kindred soul in a girl of a different race at the same time his dad is in the midst of a racial scandal. It’s about his struggle to handle what he feels for Naomi with what’s going on around him. It’s about this situation forcing him to come to terms with racism in a way he’s never had to worry about before. It’s about him having to do a little soul-searching himself about his own issues with race. It’s about him understanding that there are some things that he will never understand because he’s white.

So, yes, Naomi’s point of view would have been spectacular, but she’s not the main character. And hell, I hate that I have to say this, but I’m gonna because it’s true: having a white kid be the protagonist and having the story come from his point of view means a hell of a lot more people will read it. I’m sure no one needs to be told that it’s a hell of a lot simpler to sell and market a book when the main character is white, especially when that book is told in first person.

Additionally, the author is a white man. I’m sure it was probably simpler for him to write the book from the point of view of a white teenage male, being that he was, at one point, a white teenage male. I do not say that with any censure or with any anger or anything negative. It can be difficult trying to write from the point of view of a character whose gender and race are not your own, and I’m not going to chastise someone for doing what makes it simpler to tells a story that needs to be told. I’m pleased and really appreciate the fact that he told this story. It’s a beautiful story and a beautiful book and I think he did it well.

I feel grateful that Mr. Edmond wrote Bright Lights, Dark Nights. I really do. Beyond having had the joy of reading it and beyond having loving it, I really do feel grateful that someone took the time to write a book about a subject that’s difficult. I’m grateful that he cared enough to do this and do it well. Racism is something that white people really don’t need to think about or be cognizant of in their everyday lives. It doesn’t affect their lives in the way it does for people of color.

When my parents started teaching me to drive, the first thing they taught me was that, if I was ever stopped for a cop, to never, ever, ever get rude or snippy with the cop because that might be the last thing I ever did. And that, because the world is what it is, the cop might not even be punished for it. This was back in 2003. Notice what’s still going on in 2015.

I have constantly been told that there’s no way I speak as many languages I do or attended the university I did or traveled to as many countries as I have because I’m black. I have been followed in stores because I’m black. I have been told that I must be someone’s baby mama because that’s what black women are. Racism is a fact of life for a person of color and we deal.

Racism just isn’t hugely on the radar for white folks because it doesn’t need to be. It’s not something that shapes your world view because it doesn’t need to be. It’s common for young black men to watch white women cross the street to get away from them. And it’s common for black girls to be followed around department stores as if we’re automatic thieves. It’s common for us to be told that “criminal” is just what we are.

White folks really don’t have to face this sort of stuff in the way we do. So that the author cared enough to write this – and to have Walter face some harsh realizations about his own racism – means quite a bit to me. I like feeling that people care. It makes me feel like maybe, just maybe, the world isn’t completely fucked.

It also made me happy that this white dude could so apparently easily imagine this young white guy be so crazy into a young black girl. We don’t hear or see this often. And he writes Walter and Naomi so well; he writes Walter’s affection for her so truthfully and expressively like it’s a no-brainer. Like there’s not a world in which she wouldn’t be considered a catch. Like there’s not a world where a Walter wouldn’t think of a Naomi as awesome.

Very few people are talented enough to write something they can’t believe in. You can always tell; something, no matter how beautiful the prose, will ring false. I’ve read books where you can tell the writer was so not feeling that romance – that it was there because someone – an editor, perhaps the author themselves – felt it needed to be there For Reasons, but that they didn’t buy it. There’s something about it that just doesn’t mesh; it doesn’t work well. That is not the case here. I felt like Mr. Emond felt like this relationship made sense and that he wanted us to feel it too.

I wish Bright Lights, Dark Nights had been written when I was a teenage girl growing up in my very white suburb. Or while I was attending my multicultural-but-still-super-white university. Or while I was doing my study abroad in the there-is-absolutely-no-color-here-at-all-can-a-place-be-any-whiter-Czech Republic.

So, I did all that rambling to basically say: I fucking loved this book. I can understand why people might have issues with it; I really do. But I fucking love it. I really, really do.

*Side note: It must be said: I’ve got nothing against any of these women – they didn’t create the standard of beauty and it’s not their faults. And I’m a HUGE Kerry fan.