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Kate Stout
Ambient Light
Kate Stout, author
Friendships have a funny way of getting under your skin. In Ambient Light seven friends navigate the tricky teenaged years by clinging to each other. But when Sebastian, the center of their universe, splits off from their pack of friends to live an openly gay life in San Francisco, he leaves his friends perplexed and floundering. The youthful magnetism he possessed infects his friends—Adie, Breck, Mary Clay, Tony, Jude and Grady—with his love of music, poetry, social engagement but, most of all, his passion for wild and crazy living. But just as their love for him continues to glow through the years, so does the undercurrent of resentment engendered by his abandonment of them. The six survivors carry Sebastian in their hearts like a talisman but with the caveat that inevitably they each must deal with the shackles of his influence, too.
Stout’s debut novel creates a profound emotional panorama of the lifelong ties among a tight-knit group of seven friends. As teenagers in the 1960s, the friends’ personalities and circumstances differ greatly, but they are united by the magnetic pull of Sebastian, the group’s social hub and spiritual heart. While the group’s girls compete for Sebastian’s attention and hatch schemes—like stealing his diary—to find out which of them he likes best, Sebastian’s allure transcends standard teenage hormones and hijinks: his quietly profound spiritual outlook both mystifies and captivates them, leaving an imprint that lasts long after their soul-sharing, junk food-fueled hangouts in Sebastian’s living room.

The story’s reverse chronology begins when time and tragedy have distanced the friends and concludes when they are in high school, relying heavily on each other for solace as they navigate their families, their futures, their budding sexual desires, and their own relationships. While readers may initially have to work to catch up with fifty years of history, the story’s backwards progression offers a gradual but compelling initiation into the group by steadily unraveling the friends’ shared experiences and uncovering the roots of their complicated bonds.

Stout also seamlessly weaves together the story's narrators as chapters alternate among the friends’ points of view (adult-Adie’s cryptic reference to an incident involving Jude’s mother’s car is eventually explained by high school-Breck). Their distinct but overlapping perspectives offer deep insight into each character and a multifaceted lens on their network of relationships, with Sebastian at its center. While he is the group’s guiding light, he is more than just a symbol, struggling with his family’s alcoholism, his sexuality, and his own mortality. Darker themes like sexual abuse, illness and death feature prominently, but they are handled with sincerity and empathy, and are balanced by Stout’s strong feel for exuberant teenage antics, plus her gentle emphasis on the hidden value of our connections.

Takeaway: Compassionate, unflinching look at deep friendships through life.

Comparable Titles: Kristin Hannah; J. Courtney Sullivan’s Commencement.

Production grades
Cover: A-
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A-
Marketing copy: A-