Love and First Sight
Little, Brown and Company
What is perspective? How do we “see” things if we weren’t born with the ability to see? What would perception be without sight? In his most recent book, Love and First Sight, Josh Sundquist prompts readers to consider the concept of “perception” in a new and interesting way. For most able-bodied people, perception is understood through imagery—through sight. This novel challenges our understanding and perception of the world, when sight is taken out of the equation.
Until recently, Sundquist has been known as a best-selling memoirist. His two memoirs Just Don’t Fall and We Should Hang Out Sometime both became National Bestsellers and were translated into multiple languages. At age nine, the author lost his left leg to a rare form of bone cancer. Three years after being declared cured of the disease, at age sixteen, he began skiing and eventually was chosen to compete on the US Paralympic Ski Team in Turino, Italy in 2006. The two books hilariously and authentically expose the struggles of a teenage amputee coping and becoming acclimated in both public school and the dating world, overwhelmed with self-esteem issues divergent from those of the average teen.
In his new novel, Sundquist yet again proves his ability to tell poignant and emotional stories in a humorously insightful way. The author has incorporated his autobiographical experiences dealing with a disability into a fictional novel, prompting his readers to consider how their world view would differ without the ability to see through an honest and realistic portrayal of a blind teenage student attempting to assimilate into public high school.
After attending boarding school for the visually impaired for years, Will Porter struggles with emersion into high school in an attempt to prove his ability to “live independently in the sighted world” to his parents and more importantly himself. “I wanted to break free and move forward on the winding rainbow road of life,” he recounts. So when Will’s father discovers that an experimental surgery to restore vision to the blind is being conducted at the hospital in which he works, Will must decide if he’s willing to accept the risks of the operation in order to gain eyesight for the first time in his life. “Lean on others long enough, and eventually you fall…I want to see it all; I want to savor every fiber of this other layer of reality,” Will decides. This echoes Sundquist’s own transition into using prosthetics. Throw in the protagonist’s humorous self-awareness of how others perceive him (in addition to wacky friends and a convoluted love interest) and the novel gains even more depth and realism.
Sundquist exemplifies, through Will’s vantage point, the reality of growing up with a disability in an able-bodied world. He honors both the shame and pride that come with “seeing” the world differently and exemplifies both through Will’s character at different moments in the novel. He stresses the importance of understanding and empathy in the characters that Will becomes close to, while simultaneously mocking those who pity him out of ignorance. The reader experiences Will’s pride in his acute hearing and ability to navigate around his school and town. Will’s pride at his own heightened abilities often complicate his being a “disabled” teen. By doing this, Sundquist instills in his reader a new perspective, and prompts a reconsideration of what it actually means to be disabled.
This reconsideration comes in the fifth chapter, when Will and his classmate Cecily are assigned a journalism piece on a local art museum by an exceptional teacher that insists on treating Will like every other student. As Cecily guides Will through the museum, she gains a new sensitivity to her classmate’s disability. Running his fingertips along a painting, Will supposes that the artist has depicted something triangular in shape. The partners make a game of Will’s attempts at guessing the focus of the piece. “A piece of pizza? A Dorito?” he asks. “When was your last meal?” Cecily mocks. “Fine, I give up. What is it?”
When Cecily responds that the painting is of a road, Will cannot comprehend it, “But roads are straight lines,” he argues. Cecily finds herself attempting to explain perception through visual images and comparisons which serve little purpose to Will’s understanding of the painting. She eventually realizes that he can’t even fathom color. “How would I know I’m imagining a color when I’ve never seen one before? . . .Unlike most blind people, I have never seen anything with my eyes,” Will explains.
Moments like these illustrate Sundquist’s sensitivity to his characters. He makes readers aware of Will’s frustrations, as he leaves the gallery frustrated with Cecily’s ignorance, wondering how he could have ever had a crush on her in the first place. But he also illustrates Cecily’s guilt and eventual understanding of her lack of sensitivity through the apology text she sends later that night. Sundquist has the ability to read his readers minds—as we have revelations about our own ignorance and misconceptions, so do his characters.
While Sundquist does show a sensitivity, he doesn’t shy away from moments of tension between characters which adds to the realism of the story. But, when the plot of the novel veers toward becoming too serious or melancholy, Sundquist instills in Will’s first-person narrative a sense of humor, providing comedic relief in times of high tensions, that could only have originated through navigating with a disability himself. Ironically, the blind kid often finds himself comically accommodating those around him in order to displace awkward situations. Will’s favorite victim for this sense of humor is his principle, Larry Johnston, who makes everyone, including Will, uncomfortable by advertising the teen’s disability when shouting things such as “Blind student coming through!” throughout the hallways. Will accommodates for the principle’s ignorance by patiently making corrections to his false assumptions and stereotypes about blindness (for example, assuming that he can only remember people by touching their faces).
Will finds himself making light of awkward situations by making a joke out of his inability to see. When he awkwardly grabs a female classmate’s chest in attempt to find the railing in a staircase, he thanks the student for her profuse apologies before offering an aside to his readers: “That’s what a white cane will do for you: Not only can you get away with copping a feel, the girl assumes it was her fault and apologizes for it. Let me assure you, random girl, you have nothing to be sorry about. Completely my fault. And my pleasure.”
While inappropriate at times, Will’s comedic nature leaves this reader feeling a second-hand embarrassment for his humiliating, yet mostly understandable, circumstances. I can’t help rolling my eyes at his crass jokes that come from a place of panic and paranoia about how others will perceive him. Will is so self-conscious about being perceived as a pervert for groping a girl in the hallway, that he must shrug off the situation through an aside to the readers that suggests that this was his intention all along. Here, Sundquist honors Will’s insecurity about others’ perception of himself fueled by his perpetual fear that someone may mistake him as a pervert or an idiot, failing to recognize he’s blind. Will’s joking nature is almost like a nervous tick, switched on whenever he feels uncomfortable or threatened in a foreign situation—and you can only imagine how many foreign situations he will encounter in a new public high school.
Sundquist’s humor and anecdotal voice add to the authenticity of the novel, while he simultaneously probes his readers with the question of perception. Because of the author’s personal ties to his subject matter, Love and First Sight effectively becomes a moving novel worth reading that contextualizes the complex notion of perspective and how we as humans relate to each other and the world we live in.
Ashley Miller is a resident of Edwardsville, Pennsylvania. She is currently a senior at Susquehanna University, finishing a triple major in English Literature, Philosophy and Publishing & Editing. Ashley has recently accepted an offer at George Washington University to pursue her Masters in English Literature, where she plans to continue her research in 19th and 20th century British Literature and gender studies.