Every morning, sixteen-year-old Sol wakes up at the break of dawn in her hometown of Tijuana, Mexico and makes the trip across the border to go to school in the United States. Though the commute is exhausting, this is the best way to achieve her dream: becoming the first person in her family to go to college.
When her family’s restaurant starts struggling, Sol must find a part-time job in San Diego to help her dad put food on the table and pay the bills. But her complicated school and work schedules on the US side of the border mean moving in with her best friend and leaving her family behind.
With her life divided by an international border, Sol must come to terms with the loneliness she hides, the pressure she feels to succeed for her family, and the fact that the future she once dreamt of is starting to seem unattainable. Mostly, she’ll have to grapple with a secret she’s kept even from herself: that maybe she’s relieved to have escaped her difficult home life, and a part of her may never want to return.
Not at all my standard fare. In these days of stress and anxiety, I tend to lean towards stories that deal with either comforting subject matter, or that provide pure, unbridled escapism. Things which realistic fiction doesn’t really concern itself with much. I recognize their importance, though, and an excerpt of this novel was compelling enough to make me want to pick this up.
Daniel Aleman’s Brighter Than the Sun is a hard-but-heartwarming read about a young woman carrying entirely too many burdens and responsibilities on her shoulders. Protagonist Sol, true to her name, is really the shining star in this book. Resilient and vulnerable, her efforts to provide for her family while still being a rock and an anchor to them are often difficult to witness. But Sol’s journey is ultimately one of identity, of finding peace and stillness within herself in spite of all the chaos that surrounds her external life, and, as someone who has never had to confront the choices and conflicts this character comes across with, this aspect of the story is what resonated with me the most.
A major recurring theme is that Sol feels like two different people: she lives in Mexico with her struggling family, but goes to school and works across the border in California*, leading a hectic, harried life, but one with friends and — she feels — more opportunities. In one world she feels restrained, and in the other she feels like she could grow. And then there’s her name: Soledad — Spanish for “solitude.” Not wanting to be defined by this isolating feeling, she decides to go by Sol instead, a nickname that begins as an aspiration but then quickly becomes an elusive ideal.
Sol’s attempts to consolidate these different aspects of herself form the crux of the story, and make it a wholly compelling one. You want her family to be better off, yes, but you also want Sol to realize and embrace all of her strength and potential. To live up to her chosen name and nature — and to then overcome it, to rise even higher and shine brighter than—
* Before picking up this novel I was entirely ignorant about transborder students. Reading about this particular aspect of the immigrant experience was fascinating and eye-opening.