Before her dad died, Marigold “Mary” Sullivan lived 10 blocks from the beach in California. There, she basked in the bright yellow sun while her boyfriend, Bennett, surfed and she and her BFF, Nora, excitedly made plans to attend college together at the University of California, Santa Barbara. But nine months after her dad died, Marigold’s mom moved their family from California to the cool green woods of upstate New York.
As Kate Sweeney’s lyrical and empathetic debut novel, Catch the Light, opens, Marigold is disoriented and lonely in her grief, “feeling like I’m inside a mirage” in which nothing is solid or certain and nobody understands her. Her mom is immersed in work; her younger sister, Bea, is bristling with unresolved anger; and her older sister, Hannah, is away at college.
But although she’s contending with an avalanche of change, Marigold understands that life continues apace, so she sets about orienting herself in her new town. She tours her soon-to-be school and shops at the grocery co-op, where she has a heart-fluttering meet cute with dreamy, sensitive local guy Jesse over a tube of beeswax lip balm.
The prospect of new romance is thrilling, but Marigold hasn’t resolved things with Bennett, and her efforts to parse his cryptic texts while guiltily swooning over Jesse add a nice frisson of tension to the book. So, too, does Marigold’s uncertainty about college in California and her reluctance to come clean about it to Nora. And then there’s her biggest secret, which is that she’s beginning to forget her father: “I don’t remember his smell or the feeling of his skin, and my memories curve around the empty spaces where he would have stood or spoken.”
Marigold tries to forget the forgetting, to carry on despite the increasing weight of things unspoken. Thankfully, Jesse inspires her to revisit photography, which ultimately serves as a form of salvation. Indeed, healing through art is a theme to which Sweeney, who is also a singer-songwriter, does beautiful justice. Her expressive prose renders quotable lines on nearly every page of Catch the Light as Marigold opens herself up to inhabiting the new life she’s forging after—and despite—her great loss.
Catch the Light is an affecting and affirming case for the painful, transformative inevitability of hope in the face of heartache.