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A Scatter Of Light: Summary and Quotes

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a scatter of light discussion guide

Note: the following discussion guide contains spoilers, as well as references to critical plot points and the conclusion of A Scatter Of Light by Malinda Lo.

A Scatter of Light, a young adult novel written by Malinda Lo in 2022, unfolds in the vibrant landscape of 2013 California.

The protagonist, 18-year-old Aria Tang West, spends her summer with her artist grandmother, Joan, in Woodacre. Aria’s journey takes an unexpected turn as she becomes part of a close-knit, older, queer friend group in the aftermath of the re-legalization of gay marriage in California.

Set against the backdrop of the diverse LGBTQ+ community in the Bay Area, the story follows Aria’s exploration of her sexuality, coping with grief, and embracing her identity as an artist.

A Scatter Of Light by Malinda Lo

While the novel stands alone, it can also be seen as a companion to Lo’s earlier work, Last Night at the Telegraph Club, both exploring themes of queerness and Chinese American identity, reflective of the author’s own experiences.

The title, A Scatter of Light, originates from Aria’s grandfather’s description of watching a sunset and reappears as the title of Aria’s own painting at the novel’s conclusion.

In this guide we will go through the complete summary and some of the best quotes from A Scatter Of Light by Malinda Lo.

Have a wonderful book club discussion! ✨

Summary | Quotes

A Scatter Of Light Summary

Aria, initially planning a summer with friends on Martha’s Vineyard before starting MIT, faces an unexpected twist when her nude photos are posted online without consent. In response, her father, her primary guardian post-divorce, insists she spends the summer with her artist grandmother, Joan, in Woodacre, California.

Joan, known for her abstract paintings and portrait photography, introduces Aria to Steph, an androgynous gardener. A chance encounter at the grocery store leads to Aria meeting Steph’s girlfriend, Lisa, and best friend, Mel. Aria is invited to Steph’s open mic performance, marking the beginning of her integration into this tight-knit group.

As Aria navigates her evolving attraction to Steph, she becomes captivated by fantasies. Encouraging Steph to pursue her musical aspirations, Aria grapples with the challenges Steph faces in balancing dreams with the demands of stability and her relationship with Lisa.

While staying with her grandmother Joan, Aria immerses herself in assisting with the organization of her late grandfather’s astronomy research notes. These notes are crucial for Joan’s upcoming artistic project, although she remains tight-lipped about the details. This collaborative effort provides Aria with a glimpse into Joan’s life as an artist, allowing her to appreciate her grandmother beyond the familial role.

Motivated by an Adrienne Rich poem and inspired by an artist named Bernice Bing, Aria tentatively begins exploring her own painting endeavors. Wrestling with self-consciousness, she seeks guidance from Joan to navigate this artistic journey.

Midway through the summer, Aria reconnects with her mother, Alexis, during a tense lunch in San Francisco. Alexis, an opera singer with an international schedule, shares news of her engagement, critiques Aria for the nude photos, and expresses regret for not being more present. Alexis attempts to mend their strained relationship, introducing Aria to the Chinese side of her family through photos of a distant cousin, Lily Hu, a scientist in Los Angeles.

Aria, in private encounters with Steph, confides in her about her emerging queer identity during a hike. As Aria and Steph grow closer, tensions escalate between Steph and her girlfriend Lisa. Aria and Steph share a kiss at a friend’s party, leading to secret, intimate meetings.

Meanwhile, Aria’s best friend Tasha unexpectedly visits Woodacre after a summer-long dispute with their friend Haley. Tasha reveals a hidden relationship with Haley, who ultimately decides she isn’t gay. Aria, hesitant initially, eventually confides in Tasha about her relationship with Steph after attending the Queer Music Festival in San Francisco, where the pieces of Aria’s life begin to connect.

About two weeks before her departure from California, Aria witnesses her grandmother Joan having a stroke. After calling Steph for a ride, they share an intimate moment for the first time. Aria’s father and aunt rush to the scene, and in the ensuing days, Aria grapples with a mix of fear, guilt, and desire. Although Joan stabilizes and is moved to a rehabilitation center, she tragically succumbs to a second, fatal stroke less than a week later.

In the aftermath, overwhelmed by emotions, Aria informs Steph of Joan’s passing during a visit to her workplace. Their intimate moment is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Lisa, who confronts Steph about her infidelity.

Following the confrontation, Steph distances herself from Aria until they reunite at Joan’s memorial service. Despite Aria’s pleas, Steph insists on ending their relationship, emphasizing the need to focus on herself. On her final night in California, Aria discovers a hidden sculpture crafted by Joan—a representation of Aria’s grandfather’s head constructed from his research notes folded into small cubes.

The narrative leaps forward ten years to 2023, where the last chapter unfolds at Aria’s inaugural art show. Aria shares her artwork, including a painting titled “A Scatter of Light,” incorporating her first piece from 2013. Family members and Tasha attend, and Aria confides in Tasha about the significance behind her creation.

Narrated exclusively from Aria’s first-person perspective, the story intimately captures her emotions and personal growth during that transformative summer in California. Through the lens of an 18-year-old, Malinda Lo provides valuable insights into the complexities of navigating sexuality, familial bonds, and the pursuit of creative expression.

A Scatter Of Light Quotes

Here are some of the best quotes from A Scatter Of Light by Malinda Lo.

  1. “This conversation with Steph about my grandmother was the least sexy topic I could imagine, but inside me I felt a tiny unfurling, as if a tender green shoot were turning toward the sun.” (Chapter 4, Page 44) Aria’s initial conversation with Steph introduces Joan’s memory loss as a significant sub-conflict. It characterizes Steph as someone caring, going beyond her gardening job to help Joan. The simile implies that the seed of Aria’s sexuality has always been present, needing the right person (in this case, a gardener) to nurture its growth.
  2. “And now she was here, in this community who knew her better than I did. I felt uncomfortable and thrilled by this revelation all at once, as if I’d discovered a stranger inside someone I loved.” (Chapter 10, Page 90) As Aria spends more time with Joan, she realizes the gift of her summer in Woodacre. She develops a deeper understanding of Joan as an artist and witnesses her in everyday communities, creating a fuller picture of Joan outside her role as a grandmother.
  3. “I was captivated by that imagined image: the diver hanging in mid-water as if suspended between past and future, as if trying to make a choice.” (Chapter 11, Page 92) The diver from Adrienne Rich’s poem “Diving into the Wreck” captures the suspension felt by the novel’s characters. Aria visualizes this image, inspiring her to start painting—a crucial step in her journey to becoming an artist. Rich and Bing, real lesbian artists, ground the story in modern-day queerness.
  4. “I remember thinking I wish you were a boy, because then my summer would be a lot more interesting.” (Chapter 2, Page 19) Upon their initial encounter, Aria finds Steph intriguing but dismisses her attraction, given her previous interest in boys. Ironically, Steph becomes the first woman Aria falls in love with, intensifying her summer emotionally. This wish gains depth when Steph later discloses her nonbinary identity.
  5. “Haley was saying something and leaning toward Tasha, one hand outstretched. Tasha was looking at her through her oversized sunglasses, so I couldn’t see her eyes, but there was a weird stiffness to her face. I wondered if they’d had a fight.” (Chapter 3, Page 22) Aria notes a shift in dynamics between Haley and Tasha, hinting at tension. This foreshadows Tasha’s eventual coming out, providing Aria fragments of their secret relationship. The pieces fall into place as Aria questions her own sexuality.
  6. “Somehow the fact that he had managed to get my shirt off made him someone the other guys looked up to, but the fact that I had taken my shirt off made me a slut.” (Chapter 3, Page 26) Aria confronts the gender-based double standard in sexual activity. Jacob faces no consequences for inappropriate actions, while Aria faces public and private shaming, impacting her summer plans. This incident explains Aria’s resentment toward spending the summer in California.
  7. “And I definitely didn’t have the resources to summer on Martha’s Vineyard without their charity. They always made me feel like a guest in their homes, but as a guest, I was easily uninvited.” (Chapter 3, Page 28) Reflecting on her challenging childhood, Aria struggled to fit in with affluent friends in Wellesley and yearned for a closer relationship with her mother. The rescinded invitations to Martha’s Vineyard underscore the prioritization of social status over supporting their daughters during a tough time.
  8. “‘I want things to change between us,’ she said […]. ‘Before, I had to make sure I could pay all my bills, but now I can make sure you have the best life possible.’” (Chapter 24, Page 184) Aria’s lunch with Alexis marks a turning point in their mother-daughter relationship. By offering to contribute to Aria’s college tuition, Alexis strives to be more present and supportive. Aria, initially skeptical, gradually grows more patient and understanding with each subsequent phone call.
  9. “Her face was barely lit in the shadowed room, but I didn’t need to see every detail to recognize what she was feeling. It seemed palpable in the air between us. Inevitable. ‘No,’ I said. ‘I only want you.’ I felt as if I’d lit myself on fire […] I didn’t feel like I was standing on firm ground until her mouth met mine.” (Chapter 27, Page 200) Steph and Aria’s first kiss marks the transition of their emotionally intimate relationship becoming physical. Lo uses dramatic language and similes to highlight Aria’s intense desire, emphasizing the emotional experience of a young first love.
  10. “After a few minutes I asked, ‘What did you mean, ‘ladies first’? You don’t think of yourself as a lady?’ ‘I’m definitely not a lady.’” (Chapter 44, Page 281)Steph, for the first time, talks about her gender identity, indicating that she might be genderqueer. Aria, despite being unfamiliar with the concept, fully accepts Steph’s expression, showing her openness to learning about different identities.
  11. “The day I found that article I had been angry at my mom for something she’d said to me over the phone […] When I read the Globe interview, though, I was so proud of her it hurt.” (Chapter 15, Page 121) At 12, Aria finds a Boston Globe interview with her mother advocating for “color-blind” casting. This moment reveals Aria’s deeper feelings, teaching her that it’s possible to celebrate achievements despite the end of a romantic relationship.
  12. “They probably all thought I was queer, and when I realized this I felt a thrill, as if a mask I’d put on had suddenly become my real face.” (Chapter 27, Page 196) Since arriving in California, Aria pays close attention to the presentation of her new queer friends. Crafting an outfit for Roxy’s party to appear “less straight,” she finds joy in fitting in within this new community. This sense of belonging contrasts with her experiences among Wellesley and Martha’s Vineyard friends, where she finally feels like her authentic self.
  13. “I’d never seen my grandmother like this before: weak-bodied, limbs flaccid, as if whatever made her who she was had vanished. I felt helpless.” (Chapter 38, Page 251) Joan’s confusion, memory loss, and recent sickness foreshadow her stroke. Aria, initially trying to fit in with an older crowd and avoid being seen as a child, is thrust into sudden adult responsibility as she helps Joan in this emergency. Joan’s abrupt stroke and subsequent death serve as a challenging lesson for Aria in impermanence and accepting things beyond her control.
  14. “And then I knew what I wanted to tell her, and before I could lose my nerve I said, ‘I don’t think I’m straight.’” (Chapter 19, Page 153) Steph becomes the first person Aria comes out to, cautiously acknowledging her uncertainty. This admission is pivotal in her relationship with Steph, prompting her to explore art as a young adult. Aria continues learning about the spectrums of sexuality and gender, never claiming a specific label.
  15. “Through the viewfinder, Joan’s flipped image floated, mirage-like, on the speckled focusing screen, as if the camera were a door to a different time and place.” (Chapter 45, Page 288) In this scene, Aria takes on the role of the photographer for the first time, a significant step in her journey to becoming an artist. Joan’s description of her art involving time influences Aria, who starts understanding how to capture moments in time through her art. The mirage-like quality of Joan’s image hints at her unexpected death the morning after the photo is taken.
  16. “‘What if what your heart desires hurts someone else?’ Steph asked. ‘Sometimes you can’t avoid that,’ Joan said, ‘because people have feelings, and other people’s feelings aren’t always congruent with ours.’” (Chapter 22, Page 170) Steph and Joan engage in a serious conversation about their artistic pursuits, inadvertently foreshadowing the turmoil that follows Aria and Steph’s secret relationship. Steph’s pursuit of a full-time music career, coupled with her desire for Aria, ultimately costs her both Lisa and Aria. This prioritization of art over a relationship mirrors Aria’s own experience with her mother, Alexis, who prioritized her opera career over being a present mother.
  17. “Everyone was smiling, but none looked as happy as Lily and Kath, who were gazing at one another rather than the photographer. There was a radiance in their faces, as if each of them carried a sun in their hearts, and that sun was their love for each other.” In a group photo, Lily and Kath appeared the happiest, their gaze fixed on each other instead of the camera. Their radiant faces suggested a profound love, moving enough to bring tears.
  18. “All at once I could see who I was becoming as opposed to who I once was. I was split in two: my future and my past. I wanted to remain here on the edge between my two selves, doubly exposed, all hunger and heart.” Malinda Lo eloquently captures internal struggles, turning them into something remarkably beautiful. The author skillfully portrays the protagonist’s realization of the dichotomy between their past and future, desiring to linger on the edge between the two, exposed and filled with emotion.
  19. “She tasted like saltwater oysters. I was in love with all of her. I was not myself anymore; I was hers.” The description of the taste of saltwater oysters signifies a profound experience. The speaker expresses being completely in love, feeling a transformative shift in identity – no longer an individual but belonging wholly to the person they love.
  20. “Beautiful and miraculous. But you know what makes it a miracle? The fact that we are present in that moment, experiencing it fully, before it inevitably changes.” The quote emphasizes the beauty of a moment and its miraculous nature. The speaker highlights the true miracle lies in being fully present in that fleeting moment, appreciating it before it undergoes inevitable change.
  21. “This is what I’ve learned: The art is greater than you and your feelings. You have to serve it. It is not you. Some people will never understand that, but you need to surround yourself with people who do understand it. And you need to understand it yourself. Whatever you’re creating may come from within you and your life, but then—almost like a child, it comes out of your body and it grows up and walks away. It walks away and affects other people you don’t know and have never met. That’s the beauty of it, and the reason I keep trying new things. You never know who it will effect.” Aria imparts a valuable lesson about art. It transcends personal feelings; one must serve it rather than possess it. The analogy of art being like a child emphasizes its independence, impacting people beyond the creator. The beauty lies in this unpredictable influence, motivating the speaker to explore new artistic endeavors.
  22. “She spoke quietly, her eyes downcast. ‘We were together. Haley and me. But we broke up.’ I wasn’t sure if I’d heard her correctly.” (Chapter 33, Page 226) When Tasha reveals the reason for her sudden departure from Martha’s Vineyard, Aria comprehends the subtle signs of their relationship history. Tasha’s coming out opens doors for newfound honesty in Aria’s friendships, allowing her and Tasha to support each other in their journeys to self-discovery.
  23. “‘An abstract painting is like excavating your emotions,’ she said. ‘It’s not an easy slap-it-on-the-canvas thing. There are layers to get through before you can uncover what it’s about.’” (Chapter 36, Page 244) Frustrated with her stagnant painting process, Aria seeks advice from Joan. The seriousness with which Joan approaches Aria’s piece demonstrates her support for Aria’s artistic journey and awareness of Aria’s search for identity. Despite the painful end to her summer, Aria continues to create art, finding closure with this first painting ten years later.
  24. “I was such a fraud. Not only an Asian fraud, but a lesbian fraud, too. I had no idea what I was doing.” (Chapter 21, Page 216) After Steph expresses regret for their kiss, Aria feels self-conscious about her identity. This moment highlights Aria’s disconnection from her Chinese heritage and casts doubt on her queerness, echoing her uncertainties as an artist when she struggles to decide what to paint.
  25. “I zoomed in on Lily’s and Kath’s faces, feeling an unexpectedly vivid connection to them both, as if I could sense the love between them glowing like a radiant sun. After so many years, they could show their love to the world at last.” (Chapter 51, Page 305) Aria, for the first time, feels a concrete connection to her distant relative Lily Hu, a Chinese American queer family member. This connection allows Aria to reflect on the sacrifices made by previous generations of queer individuals.
  26. “For years, I had no idea what to do with the painting. It stayed rolled up in one closet after another. I thought about throwing it away so many times, but I could never let it go. It was still speaking to me. I just had to learn how to hear it.” (Chapter 55, Page 324) In the resolution, Aria keeps her first painting as a physical manifestation of the lessons learned during the summer in Woodacre. She learns to listen to the painting, incorporating the painful memories into her adulthood.
  27. “‘Promise me you’ll keep an eye on him,’ Mom said. ‘He’s not like you and me […] We get things done when we have to. Make sure he gets something to eat besides coffee.’ How had she known he wasn’t eating?” (Chapter 51, Page 301) Aria notices her parents’ love and care for each other as she tries to heal her relationship with her mother. Her mother’s intuition about Aria’s emotions surprises her.
  28. “I remembered Joan saying Your mother is an artist, and for a split second the connection between Joan, my mother, and me seemed crystal clear, revelatory. I knew I should understand who they were and who I was and why all this had happened—but the moment vanished as quickly as it came […]” (Chapter 47, page 296) Amid the disorienting grief of Joan’s death, Aria has a moment of clarity, realizing her place in the lineage of artists in her family. This realization foreshadows Aria’s future in the art world.
  29. “The world disappeared, and there was only this connection between us, so real it felt like a physical creature, ravenous. All we could do was feed it. And then like an ax shattering glass, Lisa’s voice behind us: ‘What the fuck are you doing?’” (Chapter 46, Page 293) In the story’s conclusion, the intense and fragile nature of Aria and Steph’s secret relationship is described using vivid, violent language. Lisa’s sudden confrontation shatters the protective “bubble” Aria had been trying to maintain.
  30. “Guilt is a shape-shifter. It can fester like a sore, burning for attention, or it can lurk like a beast in the dark, always there but never clearly visible […] Sometimes I hope it will never go away.” (Chapter 49, Page 299) Aria reflects on guilt being a shape-shifter, sometimes festering and other times lurking in the dark. This reflection captures the messy and contradictory emotions of an affair, avoiding a neat and happy ending.

Which quotes did you like the most? Happy reading! ❤️