Alice Sun has always felt invisible at her elite Beijing international boarding school, where she’s the only scholarship student among China’s most rich and influential teens. But then she starts uncontrollably turning invisible—actually invisible.
When her parents drop the news that they can no longer afford her tuition, even with the scholarship, Alice hatches a plan to monetize her strange new power—she’ll discover the scandalous secrets her classmates want to know, for a price.
But as the tasks escalate from petty scandals to actual crimes, Alice must decide if it’s worth losing her conscience—or even her life.
In this genre-bending YA debut, a Chinese American girl monetizes her strange new invisibility powers by discovering and selling her wealthy classmates’ most scandalous secrets.
**If You Could See the Sun comes out October 11, 2022**
Thank you Edelweiss and the publisher for this copy in exchange for an honest review.
Asian representation? Check. International boarding school locale? Check. A swoony academic rivals to lovers romance? Check. If You Could See the Sun checked off a LOT of boxes for me even before getting into it, but the actual story was a brilliant debut full of hijinks and personable characters to root for.
Alice goes to one of the most elite boarding schools in Beijing but that comes with a little problem. Her family is actually not that well off, and she only has half a scholarship to cover the cost of tuition. When it seems her family cannot afford to keep sending her to the one place where she feels she can be seen for who she is (re: almost the smartest overachiever), she gets desperate to maintain the crafted identity and reputation she took years to cultivate.
The idea of being unseen when Alice is surrounded by classmates from the top echelons of society, sons and daughters of actors and singers and CEOs, is one that I think we can all resonate with even if our situation is nowhere near as extreme. While others could be known for their money, charm, beauty or athleticism, Alice felt she really only had one thing: her intellect and ability to be the top 1 in her class. And in China, let me tell you, that is a whole different world and standard than perhaps what North American society is like, regardless that this is an international boarding school.
Of course, what irked her more was that her identity had to be shared with a rich boy who didn’t seem to need this reputation as much as she did. Enter Henry, who secretly is a cinnamon roll and probably had a crush on her the entire time. Personally, I think I liked that romantic set up even more because it’s obvious to ALL of us minus Alice that he didn’t see her as the enemy in the same way she built up their rivalry. The angst of waiting to see what could come of a partnership between them? Pure delight.
The pacing was good as it soon became evident that Alice’s fear of being unseen and unknown was building to explosive levels as her time at school was ticking towards a close. The slightly paranormal aspect of this story that imagines her feelings of invisibility manifesting as actual invisibility? I really enjoyed that because it was the perfect plot point to develop everything else. What do you get when you have a desperate girl wanting to make money with the uncanny ability to sneak around behind everyone’s literal back? A perfect money-making scheme.
As requests come in for Alice’s anonymous services that utilize her ability, it goes from innocuous to downright criminal. This is definitely more of a character-driven story than a plot one in the sense that the requests Alice accepts help build her character in good or bad ways. She was always a loner, friendly to everyone but not tight with anyone. Doing this brought to light secrets about her classmates as well as opened her eyes to who Henry could be to her if she wasn’t so angry with him all the time. While the plot could deviate a little depending on the task, it always felt relevant in terms of her growth trajectory.
Now, were there no complaints at all about the story? No, I can’t say it was perfect and I’ll outline why I had to dock off half a star.
The actual “magical” ability to turn her invisibility on or off wasn’t very clear. It just happened one day, and then there was no actual learning to control it. Even when Alice started using it for her services, she could never actively control it, but rather timed her activities to when she thought she was due to turn invisible based on past frequencies. Also, becoming visible again? Not controlled either. It’s a surprise she never got caught in the earlier tasks when she had no estimate for how long invisibility would last. While it’s not the biggest thing to nitpick on, the invisibility aspect is just a plot device and nothing more, and I feel it could’ve been utilized more as the metaphor it was. Does she get to keep this “ability” for the rest of her life or will it disappear if she learns to be seen for who she is in other aspects of her life? None of that is clear.
However, the bigger reason for not getting a full rating is the climactic request the synopsis hinted at. It gets SUPER morally grey with the decision Alice makes, and I personally do not condone how it all ended. I don’t know if it’s because of the fictional aspect, but I’m 100% sure in real life there would be more consequences. That’s not to say Alice’s growth was a villainous turn or anything. I do think it was a realistic arc for a desperate girl who wanted to her onto her one identifying characteristic. So kudos to Ann Liang for writing a complicated but realistic protagonist. Just some parts didn’t sit as well with me while I was reading it.
Last note before I end this review. While the setting is in Beijing and full of Chinese characters, whether foreign born or locals with high achieving families, this book brings lots of Asian representation to the table while not making it the biggest thing about it. I personally really liked that take. Don’t get me wrong. There are fantastic books that featured heavily on the Asian experience among the diaspora but this was a little different. Perhaps it’s because Alice is currently living in China, the land of her ancestors, so the focus can be on the Asian culture experience as it pertains to familial relationships and priorities without the major dissonance between two cultural identities. That is still relatable, or educational, but brings something slightly different to the table that I appreciated seeing.
Do I think this book is for everyone? Yes. Regardless if you’re Asian or not, this was a fun story of the lengths we may go to meet our own expectations and cultivated identities. It’s relatable to the human experience, but I loved the added bonus of having the Asian representation brought into focus. The romance was just the icing on top because who wouldn’t love a sweetheart like Henry with the manners of a far older gentleman? Please pick up this book when it comes out!
If You Could See the Sun tackles the overarching question: what lengths would you go to to be seen by others? Set in a gorgeous international boarding school in Beijing and filled with all sorts of cultural references, Alice gets to answer this question herself as she literally, not metaphorically, turns invisible one day. This embarks her on a journey of self-discovery and re-evaluated relationships, especially with her academic rival, Henry. The romance was superbly done with lots of the best kind of angst, and the pace of the story grows to a climax that hangs on the edge of a cliff. This book has something for romance lovers and those who love contemporaries with thought provoking themes. It is a truly great debut with excellent Asian representation as a bonus.