Danika reviews Rise to the Sun by Leah Johnson

Rise to the Sun cover

My best friend has always been the first person I run to when it’s time to blow up my life.

I first have to admit that I have not yet read You Should See Me In a Crown, which–I mean–what am I even doing here? How can I call myself a sapphic book reviewer? Preposterous. So I’m not going to be able to compare this one to her mega popular previous title, but what I can say is that Rise to the Sun blew me away in its own right.

We’re going through a heat wave here (and air conditioners are sold out across the city, alas), and when I started the first few pages of this, I realized it was exactly what I needed to be reading: two best friends driving to a summer music festival with the volume cranked, singing at the top of their lungs. And I was right: this is a fantastic summer read, full of music, friendship, and swoon-worthy romance. But it’s also devastating.

Sometimes, in moments when a person I love criticizes my penchant to go heart-first into everything I do, I realize there’s nothing I should want to be less than a teenage girl who feels too much.

Olivia has just come off the most disastrous of a string of romantic failures. She loves to be loved, always flitting from one relationship to the next–but she’s never really herself in them, and that’s what always destroys these temporary pairings. She’s too loud and frenetic to be loved for herself, she believes, so she adapts to whatever she thinks her partner wants from her. The only one who really accepts her is her best friend, Imani, who’s always there to help pick up the pieces. So she convinces Imani to go to a music festival together to get her mind off her last breakup–despite Imani’s safety concerns and general lack of interest. She promises that this will be a best friend outing: just the two of them, no romances.

Toni has been going to this music festival every summer for years–but this is the first one without her father. He died recently from gun violence, and she is still reeling. The truth is, she didn’t see much of her father her whole life. He was always on the road with musicians, leaving Toni and her mom waiting while he kept changing the dates where he would come home. Toni is determined to be different. That’s why she is enrolled in university, starting next week. To get a dependable job and be a reliable adult. Except that the thought of showing up to class fills her with dread. She’s signed up to perform at a festival competition using her father’s logic that live music always brings answers. Maybe then, she’ll know what to do.

I’m a one-woman wrecking crew and eventually I destroy the people closest to me, especially the people I decide to love.

Of course, things don’t go according to plan. Toni and Olivia stumble into each other, and Olivia volunteers herself to be Toni’s needed performance partner–as long as she helps Olivia collect the Golden Apples in a scavenger hunt with a car for the prize. She also tries to pair up Imani with Toni’s best friend, because that’s even better than the best friend getaway she promised, right?

It’s no surprise that Olivia and Toni fall for each other, no matter how much they both try to resist. Toni calls herself an ice queen and Olivia is an irrepressible sunshine-y romantic, which is always a fun dynamic. There’s an “only one bed” trope moment! Meanwhile, there are madcap shenanigans chasing down the golden apples and live music experiences and dances amidst a pulsing crowd of people.

As I mentioned before, though, this isn’t just a summer romance. Gun violence is a running theme throughout the novel: how it is always a looming threat, including at big events like this music festival. For Toni, the idea is debilitating and brings on panic attacks. Olivia is trying to outrun what’s waiting for her at home: a judicial hearing. (Spoiler:) Her then-boyfriend pressured her into sending revealing photos and then posted them publicly. She’s not sure whether it’s worth facing him and the spectators or endangering his potential as a basketball star. (End spoiler.) Olivia struggles with her self esteem, and she also is not a good friend to Imani through most of the story. Both Olivia and Toni get overwhelmed by their insecurities and fears, letting bad habits flare up at the worst possible times.

This is an absorbing read that left my heart aching for Toni and Olivia (and Imani). I love how much depth there is to both characters and everyone’s interactions. This could easily have been a much simpler summer love story, and I would have enjoyed that too, but instead it felt much more messy and realistic. I appreciated Olivia’s journey to recognizing both her faults (and the damage they’ve caused) as well as her self-worth. I know I’m the last one on the Leah Johnson train, but let me just confirm what everyone’s been saying: she’s a star. I can’t wait to go back and read You Should See Me In a Crown now!

Content warnings: gun violence, death, sexual harrassment

That big love you give everyone else—you deserve to save some for yourself. You’re worth that much— worth every good thing.