Thea Goodman’s debut novel ”The Sunshine When She’s Gone” is about many things. Love’s slow shift from transitory chemical high to enduring state. How giving birth can divide a woman from access to her own needs. And strangely, the importance of sleep.
When Veronica Reed refuses her husband John’s romantic overtures yet again, he wakes the next day, his discontent having reached an unconscious tipping point. Thinking to take their six-month-old daughter to breakfast, he winds up on a plane to Barbados instead. What follows is a brief yet significant marital hiatus during which both John and Veronica are reunited with their mislaid yet essential selves. For Goodman, this protracted separation provides a means of exploring the unique emotional adjustments John and Veronica have made to the medical ordeal of their daughter’s birth as well as each other in its aftermath.
An astute observer of relationships, Goodman dips into both Veronica and John’s points of view to provide a complex yet fair depiction of marriage. Also to this end, the book pulls from both past and present, offering snippets of the couple’s respective childhoods and snapshots of each’s family of origin. Yet somehow Goodman’s canniness isn’t brought as effectively to bear on the characters as individuals. John, for example, comes off as a bit of a buffoon, smoking pot, feeding his daughter diarrhea-inducing cow’s milk not once but twice, and carting her around Barbados in a stranger’s carseat-less Toyota.
Veronica’s behavior is less farcical, but she’s also less sympathetic. Goodman takes pains to empathetically illustrate Veronica’s reaction to a traumatic birthing experience, and certainly the character’s focus on nutrition makes for a believable way of acting out the lack of control she feels over her own changed body. But beyond control issues, a desperate need for sleep, and a thrumming attraction to an old lover, Veronica’s motives feel foggy, her inner life lackluster. For example, her reaction to John’s sudden absence, the molasses-pour pace of her journey from mildly curious to panicky as to the whereabouts of her husband and infant strains credulity.
Clearly Goodman wanted to provide John and Veronica sufficient time apart for each to undergo that essential element of fiction: the turning point, but it’s hard to imagine a mother accustomed to near constant contact with her child being distracted by alcohol, a friend’s pregnancy-related health scare or even sex with an ex. When John does come home, Veronica having only just begun to react to his disappearance, Goodman lets the couple off lightly. Veronica obtains John’s easy forgiveness for her transgression as if crossing off an item on a shopping list and John finds Veronica ultimately accepting of his own misstep.
In the end, “The Sunshine When She’s Gone” remains superficial when it should plumb the dark depths of a marriage impacted by health scares, old loves, family expectations and abrupt change. Deeply felt and richly observed, it challenges its characters just enough to make the reader crave a more nuanced examination. (Sarah Terez Rosenblum)
“The Sunshine When She’s Gone”
By Thea Goodman
Henry Holt & Co., 240 pages, $24