Photograph: Harry Sawyers
Every writer dreads the inevitable moment when a friend—also a writer—releases a book.
It’s not that we’re rooting against our friends. Believe it or not, some writers do not loathe all other writers, at least not as much we loathe ourselves. But we dread the moment because: What If The Book Is Terrible? I cannot lie about a book I hate. In such a case, I would much rather take the easier path. Never talk to that friend again and pretend I never met them to begin with.
When Thea Goodman recently released her first novel, The Sunshine When She’s Gone, my position was especially precarious. Not only are we friends, but so are our second-grade daughters, which means approximately 10 more years of potentially awkward situations. It would be virtually impossible to excise Goodman from my life.
As it turns out, I don’t have to. The Sunshine When She’s Gone is good. And not simply good enough that Thea and I can remain friends—but legitimately good, as in: I physically felt the characters’ heartbreaks in my bones. The narrative dives deep into one devastating weekend in the lives of John and Veronica, a young New York couple whose relationship has been fractured by the arrival of a baby. John makes an irrational decision; Veronica responds with an even more desperate one, and the story becomes one giant downward spiral that leaves the reader dreading the domestic catastrophe to come, but powerless to resist it.
Goodman’s language has an understated poetry to it, particularly in illustrating the relentlessness of raising a baby: “After, Veronica sometimes had dreams of color—zooming reds, electric blues—but when she woke up there wasn’t time to see, only time to respond. She’d worried that, if you stayed in that dream, you might never emerge and reach another person.” She is at her best in describing the selfish, often bewildering feelings of new parents handicapped by sleep deprivation, when the constant buzzing irritation of wakefulness twists and magnifies a spouse’s shortcomings into fatal character flaws.
It’s a tough time even for a couple on solid footing; for one like John and Veronica, it’s pure poison. Your loyalties as a reader may break down along gender lines, but Goodman injects equal measures of humanity and weakness into both characters with alternating first person chapters. One could call these characters self-centered and materialistic, but that’s the point: Modern parenthood changes us all, morphing well-meaning people into egotistical consumers. For some, it’s enough of a change to erode a marriage.
Cosmopolitan ridiculously described The Sunshine When She’s Gone as a “fun thriller” and the publisher’s own press release mislabels it a “literary romp.” No and no. To call this a page-turner feels wrong, since there’s no real action or traditional plot. But Sunshine has an undeniable pull that ensnares its readers, even as they wonder why they’re so interested. Fun? I found the book less fun than painful, as Goodman’s razor-sharp prose reached off the page and tweaked me for my own shortcomings as a father, a husband, and a human being.
The open-ended coda may rankle readers conditioned to crave closure, but it was the only logical culmination of a messy story. In other words, Goodman’s characters understand that life itself is open-ended. The raw feelings reflected in this book may hurt, but to know that a novel provoked them is exhilarating—especially one written by a friend. That feeling will stay with me for a lot longer than any thrill would.