What the characters of Thea Goodman’s debut novel, The Sunshine When She’s Gone, desire most is not money or sex or even the iPhone5, but sleep: “Sleep — for both of them — had become a precious commodity, worthy of fetish. They discussed sleep. They were always counting the consecutive hours of sleep they’d had or calculating the few they could hope for.”
These self-absorbed Manhattanites are not shift workers or CEOs but first-time parents of a 6-month-old. Goodman, herself a parent, has evoked the raw emotion of this predicament in a farcical exploration of how the couple cope (or not) with the changes their daughter’s birth has wrought on their previously hedonistic and comfortable lives.
Told at a steady clip through John and Veronica’s alternating narratives, the novel rests on an undeniably absurd premise. One morning, John takes their daughter, Clara, out to breakfast to allow sleep-deprived, hormonal Veronica some rest and ends up on a plane to Barbados unbeknownst to his wife. He thinks little of the consequences. In Manhattan, access to sleep returns Veronica to a semblance of normalcy: “She has slept in and the world was altered.” But the break from motherhood also returns Veronica to cocktail hours with friends and the fantasy of an old flame, even as, only mildly concerned, she attempts to reach John and understand why he has run off with her child.
Life — for parents and for everyone — has no pause button.
Threads of the past six months unravel as the weekend proceeds, and John sheds the yoke of Veronica’s motherhood micromanagement and the treadmill of work, stolen moments with the baby, failing to initiate intimacy with his wife and his own needs. Once separated, they seem better capable of confronting the effects and alterations of Clara’s birth (though John thinks only Veronica has changed). “They’d discovered the idea of before and after together, when they were still in the hospital,” John believes, “but now the notion only divided them.” Yet when they are reunited, all the old complaints and issues remain, and both are forced to address what each encountered and did over this selfish pleasure-spree destined to become a no-turning-back weekend.
Though John and Veronica remain largely unlikeable throughout — even as they might offer comfort to parents in a similar situation that at least they’re not that bad — Goodman’s story deepens enough to enjoyably illuminate the couple’s incompetence as well purposefully poke fun at marriage and parenting issues. In somewhat of a saving grace, John at least learns what all parents must — that clinging to the past is fruitless. “There was no absolute starting point. . . . He was old enough to see that all of experience was one shimmering mass, fluid, not static. Before and after was a fiction.” Life — for parents and for everyone — has no pause button.
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