Review: Under the Lights

I’d been following the hype around this book for a while, and enjoying Dahlia Adler’s twitter feed, so when QueerYA offered up a review copy of Under the Lights, I jumped at the chance.

Under the lights is the second in the Daylight Falls series but I had not read the first instalment and I didn’t feel as though that inhibited my enjoyment. The book alternates between the narratives of Josh Chester, Hollywood bad boy, and Vanessa Parks, star Korean American actress in the TV show Daylight Falls.

Josh Chester loves being a Hollywood bad boy, Under the Lightscoasting on his good looks, his parties, his parents’ wealth, and the occasional modelling gig. But his laid-back lifestyle is about to change. To help out his best friend, Liam, he joins his hit teen TV show, Daylight Falls opposite Vanessa Park, the one actor immune to his charms. (Not that he’s trying to charm her, of course.) Meanwhile, his drama-queen mother blackmails him into a new family reality TV show, with Josh in the starring role. Now that he’s in the spotlight—on everyone’s terms but his own—Josh has to decide whether a life as a superstar is the one he really wants.

Vanessa Park has always been certain about her path as an actor, despite her parents’ disapproval. But with all her relationships currently in upheaval, she’s painfully uncertain about everything else. When she meets her new career handler, Brianna, Van is relieved to have found someone she can rely on, now that her BFF, Ally, is at college across the country. But as feelings unexpectedly evolve beyond friendship, Van’s life reaches a whole new level of confusing. And she’ll have to choose between the one thing she’s always loved and the person she never imagined she could.

I’m not a follower of celebrity gossip, reality TV, or the language that surrounds Hollywood culture, so this would not at first appear like my kind of book. But this is more than just parties and ‘BFF’s as the character’s in this novel are facing the same issues as regular teens, even if they do it with a lot more lights and drama. The novel explores finding the right future and what it will take, detaching identity from parents’ and others’ expectations, sexuality, rejection, consent, love and friendship.

Josh is an interesting character and, despite his many (MANY) flaws, readers have described how they could not help rooting for him. His sexist comments are not out-dated misogyny but comments that we regularly hear from the ‘lad’ community which not only gives him real authenticity but also questions some of the things we accept every day as ‘banter’. He is lazy, self-involved and rude, but I too found myself warming to him the more I read. He is entertaining and it is great to follow his maturation through the novel.

Adler also nicely balances Josh’s distastefulness with his best friend, Liam, who is hard-working, successful and in a loving long-term relationship. It is nice to see the difficulties of long distance relationships referenced as a modern-day reality, but not made a central problem in the novel. Liam’s attitude to women and relationships also provides an encouraging positive role model for teenage boys, serving to highlight Josh’s disrespect for the ridiculousness it is.

Whilst I enjoyed reading Josh’s development, the main strength of this novel is Vanessa and her newly discovered sexuality. Vanessa had never considered girls romantically, but when she meets Bri and is drawn to her in a way she can’t explain, she begins to look back and realise that none of her previous hetero-relationships had given her the butterflies she now feels.

Whilst I felt as though Vanessa was very quick to accept her feelings and jump into things with Bri, Adler sensitively handles different experiences of coming out and, most importantly the importance of consent. She discusses this explicitly in a fantastic guest blog post entitled ‘Why heteromormativity in YA hurts more than you think’, but demonstrates this in the novel when Bri holds back from touching Vanessa and reassures her: “See? Only what you’re okay with, Park. Always. I promise.” With the prevalence of rape culture, victim blaming and the apparent ‘grey areas’, it is vital that we make consent explicitly linked with representations of sex. (Just as a side note, and for anyone struggling with the concept, I love this comparison of consent to tea.)

And wow. That sex scene. Adler is a long time protester against the fade to black in YA lit and she does not disappoint in this hot scene between the two girls. It captures the anticipation of sexual contact with a loved one and it includes the reader in every step in a way that positively introduces teens, and LGBT teens especially, to the pleasurable experience of consensual sex.

Whilst Vanessa decides that she is definitely a lesbian, Brianna is secure in her bisexuality. Bisexual erasure is a real problem in society, with many feeling outcast from both gay and hetero communities, and labelled as greedy or just not being honest about their homosexuality. Bri not only represents a strong and secure bi character but also tackles some of the common criticism by angrily stating that people calling her a lesbian were undermining the feelings she had felt in previous relationships with guys.

Adler also expertly portrays the concerns that still surround coming out. Vanessa is not only worried about how Hollywood will accept a gay actress, let alone an ethnic minority gay actress, but also coming out to her closed-minded parents. Vanessa’s and Bri’s experiences of coming out differ greatly which is so important as it highlights that everyone’s experience is individual. I think it’s also important that whilst Vanessa does not have an easy time revealing her sexuality, the reader is left with a sense of hope that things will improve. I’ve previously discussed how YA lit needs to be honest, even if brutal, but also offer a light at the end of the tunnel and Adler certainly achieves that in her writing.

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