Book Review: The Sunshine When She’s Gone
By Thea Goodman
Henry Holt, 2013
The central problem faced by thirty-something John and Veronica at the beginning of Thea Goodman’s debut novel The Sunshine When She’s Gone will be gruesomely familiar to any new parent: acute sleep deprivation. Little six-month-old Clara doesn’t sleep through the night, and as a result “sleep – for both of them – had become a precious commodity, worthy of fetish.” Parents have been facing this problem for millennia, and Goodman does a wonderful job capturing its nasty little nuances.
The couple are living a well-off life in Brooklyn (John’s a researcher for a profitable hedge fund – “He was a good student, writing research papers for jocks” – and Veronica works for an educational nonprofit), able to indulge in the latest fabric fads or boutique food for the baby, but the sudden lack of sleep isn’t the only thing in their lives that’s changed since Clara’s arrival. John has noticed (the novel alternates viewpoint-chapters between the two) that his wife has changed as well:
Clara had divided all experience into before and after. Before, his wife was stalwart, even hearty; after, she was withholding and often sick. On occasion, she had perhaps been oversensitive; now she was brittle.
We hardly need him to tell us; from her first sentence to her last, Veronica is one of the least pleasant fictional women to appear in American fiction in years. And we get the distinct impression John knows it and has always known it – that “she had perhaps been oversensitive” is the kind of thing men say when they’re accustomed to making low-key excuses for the fact that they somehow managed to get themselves involved with a shrew.
But whatever the state of his denial, when he wakes to find her sleeping, he decides to give her a special treat and let her keep sleeping: he bundles up Clara and brings her to a local diner that’s especially friendly to babies. And when he finds that diner closed, he goes to the airport and takes the baby to Barbados.
It’s an essentially cowardly gesture of plotting on Goodman’s part (John readily admits his decision has no motive, but it saves our author from needing to make the novel in which John simply finds another diner as dramatic and interesting as the one in which he flies to the Caribbean), but regardless, it’s expertly deployed, and it opens up two very different and equally interesting narratives. John is a hapless parent, full of love for his infant daughter but utterly lacking in practical babying skills (it turns out “don’t drink the water” applies to baby milk too, who knew?). At first he’s too enraptured by his own bizarre move to care:
He looked at the ocean. The waves curled in large turquoise tunnels, and a few, far out, were dotted with surfers. Nearby, two pale hotel guests lay on their towels like beached seals, and behind him, under a tree, a man with dreadlocks was hacking open a coconut with a pocketknife. John felt lucky again, elated to be among such beauty and warmth.
(The incongruities of that paragraph – the ‘beached seals,’ the impossibility of hacking open a coconut with a pocketknife, the fact that such mundane things full John with elation – are expertly handled by Goodman in scene after scene.)
Things aren’t so idyllic for Veronica back in Brooklyn. After finally sleeping blessedly late, she sets about her day thinking John has the baby out for a simple stroll. But the unexpected treat doesn’t make her less strident and didactic, alas. When an acquaintance points out that childbirth seems to have changed her for the worse (he uses the word that will be every single reader’s preferred term for Veronica throughout the book), he gets the full treatment right back in his face:
“What do you expect? I had a child.” The blond saleswoman with the bracelet of keys walked by and lowered her eyes. “But it’s good, the change. You know what Clara does?” Veronica improvised. “She makes things perfectly clear; she breeds conviction, and she shows me what’s true. The false stands out in high relief. Like you right now.”
Another outlandish plot twist intervenes at this point, and while its details are for the reader to discover (and those details are, again, very skillfully written), the fact is this second, Veronica-centered twist is far, far less believable than anything John does. It changes her from a negative character into a negative caricature, and that’s a change the novel doesn’t really survive except on a technical page-turning level. Whether or not Goodman avoids such a cul-de-sac her next time at bat is the question.