August 2012

Rebecca Silber

fiction

Shine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzer

I was reminded of the Charles and Ray Eames film Powers of Ten early on in Lydia Netzer's debut novel, Shine Shine Shine. The film first came to mind in the third paragraph when Netzer writes, "This is a story of an astronaut who was lost in space, and the wife he left behind." Delve deeper into this paragraph -- closer, closer, from space to cellular, to the last sentence of the paragraph, "This is a story of a bulge, a bud, the way the human race tried to subdivide, the bud it formed out into the universe, and what happened to that bud, and what happened to the Earth, too, the mother Earth, after the bud was burst."

If you weren't lucky enough to have Powers of Ten shoved into a VCR by your desperate junior high substitute science teacher, I will very quickly summarize. The film, made in the 1970s for IBM, starts off showing a couple having a picnic on the Chicago lakeshore. Every ten seconds the camera travels ten times further away from the picnic and eventually ends up deep in space. Then it travels back to the picnic before magnifying ten times closer every ten seconds ending within a proton on the nucleus of a carbon atom in the picnicking man's hand. It's a marvelous journey in perspective -- the same can be said for Shine Shine Shine.

Sunny Mann, one of the main characters in Netzer's book, lives a rather lavish life. She has beautiful friends, an expensive Georgian palace in a geometrically perfect neighborhood, and a nanny. To someone merely living on her street, Sunny appears to be the perfect housewife. In reality, besides being very pregnant with her second child, she is left to cope on her own with her young autistic son, Bubber, and her dying mother, Emma, while her handsome robot-like and robot-loving husband, Maxon Mann, is in space on an ill-fated NASA mission to the moon. One ordinary day, just blocks from her home, Sunny is involved in a car accident that reveals to her neighbors an unsettling truth -- she was born bald. Up until the accident, she had been driving around in her silver minivan hiding under a wig, but the wig now lies in a puddle in the street.

As a mother of young children, I can sympathize with Sunny's character and the pull she feels as a mother, a wife, a friend, a daughter, and most importantly -- but most easily forgotten -- herself. Like many women, "when she got pregnant for the first time, Sunny was afraid she had to become something else." She did become someone else, despite the fact that it was her true self that Emma and Maxon had always loved, whose side they have consistently stood by -- the Sunny hiding underneath the wig. With Maxon in space and Emma dying in the hospital, Sunny feels as though she has lost everyone who seemed to be on her side. Her response to this is to return to her brave, bald self.

Overwhelmed with the events she is faced with on Earth, Sunny's rediscovered bravery is the only tool she has to get through the emotional turbulence in her life. Multiple times, Netzer writes, Sunny is so overcome with emotion that the only thing she can do is to take her feelings and put them aside in a closed box. "She imagined a box, a box into which she could pack everything that was happening to her and to her mother, a box she could lock tightly and open later, or never." I can completely relate to this; every mother can completely relate to this. Mothers have to be robots sometimes. It's a coping mechanism. I took pleasure in reading about the often-humorous awakening Sunny encounters. She fumbles around in her present life as much as her husband is fumbling around in outer space. Together, though not physically so, they search inward for the only three things that Maxon believes robots cannot do: love, regret, and forgive.

Told in the third person, the chapters in this novel travel back and forth between Sunny and Maxon, in Virginia and in outer space, respectively. Flashbacks, lots of them, which are artfully slipped into the story line, make for easy reading transitions. It is through these flashbacks that the nearly lifelong love story between Netzer's unique central characters and their rare pasts are revealed. It becomes apparent in reading detailed descriptions of Burma (where Sunny was born under a total solar eclipse), astronomy, and outer space, that Netzer is a brainy writer. This intelligent writing style is refreshing for a book of the chick-lit genre.

Netzer's writing style is fluid and she juxtaposes scenes expertly, making the progression from Virginia to outer space and back into a simple mind shift. The characters in Shine Shine Shine are believable, quirky, and loveable. Their thoughts and actions could belong to anyone you may know. Netzer's descriptions are creatively stunning. One of my favorite sentences in this book describes Maxon's mother after a particular incident, "She bounced back, her face almost comically registering the most predictable expression of shock." I had to reread this line and marvel at how amazing those words work together, at the perfection of the visual created. Actually, there were many occasions in reading this when I marveled at Netzer's metaphorical artistry.

Shine Shine Shine is a delightfully complex story about perception and perspective: life viewed from afar, life viewed from within, and life viewed from down the block. Ultimately, once readers look "under the wig," they will see that Shine Shine Shine is essentially a story about love, love that has always persevered, love that will continue to persevere.

Shine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzer
St. Martin's Press
ISBN 978-1250007070
320 pages