Author’s note: This review of A Scatter of Light by Malinda Lo contains some spoilers, and the quotes included are excerpted from an advance copy of the book and might differ from the final version.
In Malinda Lo’s new young adult novel, A Scatter of Light, we are history. By we, I mean me — a thirty-something Tumblr-era millennial queer who grew up during the fight for same-sex marriage, was born eons before the Tik even Toked, and is (mostly) too tired for the club these days. Leave it up to Malinda Lo to write a stunning narrative with the potential to make queer millennials feel equal parts affirmed and ancient as hell.
Kids (and publishers) will call this book historical fiction, and I guess they are right. It is mostly set in 2013 amidst the backdrop of the Supreme Court’s 2013 rulings on same-sex marriage. Despite my ardent denial, the 90s are two decades behind us, and I’ve moved into a category of adulting where one tells stories about the “good ol’ days” at bars, bookstores, and events that have been long retired. With references to anti-Prop 8 organizing, late aughts pop music, and staples of lesbian culture (hello San Fran Dyke March, melodramatic open-mic nights, and L Word critiques), A Scatter of Light has all of the makings of an idyllic ode to the queer “every day” of yesteryear.
In 2022, an ode to yesteryear might be the salve that all of us (old heads and baby queers alike) need to keep going. Let’s be honest: It is easy to get enveloped by the darkness of our “today.” We’re almost three years into a pandemic that continues to affect thousands of people every day. Across the United States, lawmakers continue to pass legislation targeting transgender folks’ access to care and safety. The Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, and some say they’re coming for gay marriage next. Natural disasters continue to obliterate homes and end lives without much action from our government. Internationally, organizers are risking it all to fight back against authoritarian regimes. The heaviness of today makes A Scatter of Light shine even more brilliantly.
At the core of Malinda Lo’s seventh novel is a coming-of-age/coming-out love story set in Marin County, California. The novel’s protagonist, Aria Tate West, is a half-Chinese, half-white teenager from Massachusetts who has been sent to spend her summer with her famed-artist grandmother following a senior-year scandal. In some ways, Lo follows a pretty cookie-cutter guide to a bestselling “coming out” story: Girl is “straight.” Girl meets butch and thinks “I wish you were a boy.” Girl later discovers she is not straight. But of course, Malinda Lo is no basic b*tch, and neither is this narrative; instead, it is complex (sometimes unnecessarily so) and invites a grappling with the grayness of doing the “right thing.”
With the structure of Aria’s journey, Lo bridges the past, present, and future. A Scatter of Light is separated into three sections. The book begins in 2008 with a snapshot of Aria and her grandmother Joan’s relationship. It ends with a glimpse into Aria’s future set in 2023. Through artifacts and dialogue, Lo includes more references to historical queer (and Chinese) culture and people of the past — an intentional move that is revolutionary in itself. Among a flurry of censorship of LGBTQ+ and BIPOC narratives, histories, and ideas from K-12 schools and libraries (including Lo’s books), this book is a defiant reiteration of our quotidian (yet radical) existence across time.
Spoiler alert: Aria falls for the most butch of butches to break her spell of “straightness.” Her love interest Steph is a butch gardener from the Bay Area who writes acoustic ballads based on Adrienne Rich’s poems. I found myself returning to Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language while reading Lo’s newest novel. Rich’s collection, a centerpiece for Aria’s exploration, is known for its celebration and discussion of women (and their relationship with other women).
In “XVII,” Adrienne Rich writes:
“No one’s fated or doomed to love anyone.
The accidents happen, we’re not heroines,
they happen in our lives like car crashes,
books that change us, neighborhoods
we move into and come to love.”
Following suit, A Scatter of Light is a book of crashes (and crushes) with effects that reverberate across time. It is queer in the best of ways — messy, raw, heartbreaking, freeing, and imperfect. Marketed as a companion novel to National Book award-winning Last Night at the Telegraph Club, the connection to Lo’s previous bestseller feels forced and unnecessary given the depth and complexity of Aria’s story. The narrative might have been served better if some plot points, such as the rad mention of Bernice Bing’s work, were either explored further or omitted altogether. While the book is stacked with racially diverse secondary and tertiary characters, it would have been nice to have a non-white primary love interest in narrative with such potential. Despite all of this, however, Lo’s newest offering is beautifully composed, often feeling like a peek into your best friend’s hot (queer) girl summer.
Make no mistake, though, this book is a bit heavy at points. Like many of us, Aria’s queer awakening is accompanied by some stress, heartbreak, and grief. The heaviness doesn’t diminish the light found in Lo’s novel, though. If anything, it might make readers feel even more connected to Aria’s experiences of love, joy, and pleasure during her summer adventures. In her narration of Aria using a telescope, Lo writes, “I had to let my eyes adapt to the darkness…to wait for the turbulence in the air to settle, and finally when everything in motion was in motion together, I might see something amazing.” A truly amazing gift, A Scatter of Light is a historical fiction book that serves as a love letter to all we once were, the mistakes we made, and the selves we will become.
Despite the darkness of this moment, Malinda Lo’s newest book (out today) reminds us of the light in our truth.
Queers make mistakes.
Some queers are not yet queer.
Queers are messy.
Queers are alive and free.
Queers find love.
Queers find themselves.
Queers break hearts.
Queers grow old.
We have always been.
We will always be.
It is these truths that make it a book worth reading (and also one likely to be banned). Get it, read it, teach it, hold it (and those you love) tightly.