In Hoang’s assured debut, a young artist makes peace with a crushing diagnosis and takes a stab at reinvention.
What would you do if your very identity were about to be erased? That’s the fundamental question Aubrey Johnson must answer—quickly. At the novel’s outset, the young, talented painter is handed a damning diagnosis: retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disorder that will blind her in six to eight weeks. As Aubrey tries to wrap her head around her condition, she runs into an old friend, Jeff Anderson. Jeff and Aubs had been best friends in high school before life took them on separate paths. Now Jeff is back, suggesting Aubrey accompany him on a trip around the world. Aubrey grabs at the chance to pack as many life-altering experiences as she can in a few weeks, while Jeff in turn is seeking some clarity in his own personal life. The novel’s central premise—a gifted painter losing her vision—might seem too neat a hook on which to hang a story, yet Hoang successfully prevents the narrative from spiraling into cliché. Insights that Aubrey slowly gathers—“Maybe the question you should be asking yourself is why you feel like what you have isn’t enough”—sometimes come across as trite life lessons, but they are more than made up for with flashes of inspired writing. Aubrey narrates the story, which has touches of romance, in the first person, and Hoang’s characterization is so impressive that the novel reads like a memoir. Readers see the world (China, India, Jordan, Israel, Brazil, Peru) through Aubrey’s artistic point of view, the result of which is often refreshing. She describes the Dead Sea, for example, as a place with “a lack of visual noise.” Despite having been dealt a cruel hand, Aubrey still has a lot going for her, including caring friends and a career that blossomed early. Her imagination first flourished after a visit to the Rothko Chapel in Houston, known for its dark, somber modern art. In contrast—and reassuringly—Aubrey’s artistic vision continues to shine plenty of light even as the natural world around her slowly fades to black.
A touching exploration of identity and reinvention painted with gentle yet precise brush strokes.