“We haven’t had sex in eleven months. Just shy of a year. More time than it takes to grow a human being.” From Samantha’s first lines in Sleepwalking in Daylight, it’s clear this novel isn’t going to be a happy story. And as Sam’s first person narration of a discontented stay-at-home mother is joined by that of her adopted “goth” daughter, Cammy, Elizabeth Flock’s novel unravels as a cautionary portrait of disconnected lives and the dangerous dichotomy between what simmers inside you and what you show to others.
Set in Chicago mainly within the confines of the Friedman’s house, the novel centers on Flock’s vision of a real American, suburban life—but one of slammed doors, hidden emotions, and the resigned whir of parental routine. The story begins with Sam’s perspective—alternating breathless confessions and staccato recounting of her life details—and a significant chunk of backstory about how their lives used to be.
Before fertility problems, Sam admits that she and her husband Bob may have started out as best friends but they never had chemistry. Instead they have become middle-aged housemates who share the duties of raising their daughter and twin boys, but can’t carry on a conversation at the dinner table, trading only occasional acerbic barbs about their faults. So while Bob hides at work and Sam secretly meets a new male “friend” for coffee dates, they keep up appearances among friends, neighbors and carpool drivers, avoiding each other, the real issues, and especially with their increasingly distant teenage daughter, believing no one is the wiser about the nothingness they both feel.
But Flock assures that the reader is wise by alternating between Sam’s and Cammy’s first-person perspectives, a challenge she pulls off well, primarily because of a knack for genuine, raw and never groomed reactions and details, like noting Triscuits are never a good idea, or Sam’s tiredness resulting from an errant smoke detector.
It’s obvious from Cammy’s diary-like sections that whereas Sam thinks Cammy is merely going through a teen phase, Cammy is purposely keeping herself apart, seeking solace in distance achieved through an intimidating goth costume, dependence on Vicodin and abusive relationships with boys. And while she’s not honest with her family, she can also see that no one else is honest either: “That’s what they want us to be, little suburban cookie cutters with pretty lawns and perfect little houses and smiles and tea parties. But everyone has freak ass problems.”
Cammy’s and Sam’s lives and desires dovetail, and like Sam and Bob, they also inhabit a space so far apart “it’s like a river where you can’t see the person on the opposite shore. We’re dots to one another.” And like her mother (and presumably Bob, who unfortunately remains two-dimensional) all Cammy wants “is to wake up out of this stupor of a life” and to live like an individual, not every other child or “every other mom in America.”
After a slow start, the story spirals fast to a surprising and painful end that forces a shift in Sam’s and Cammy’s lives. And though Flock’s writing doesn’t blow one away, Sleepwalking in Daylight becomes a frighteningly relevant tale of modern lives lived asleep, and a message to many about what’s most important—they are not alone.
Sleepwalking in Daylight
By Elizabeth Flock
Mira; 345 pages; $21.95