One can already see the motion picture brewing at the fringes of Lady Sunshine. It’s an old fashioned slice of women’s fiction about That One Summer When Everything Changed, well, it is at first. A girl finds herself among the bohemian set, there is a Big Tragedy which kills a character. Maybe two. OR DOES IT?! The deeper Doan sinks into magical realism and plot loopholes to explain her narrative choices, the harder it is to make sense of her characters’ motives. It’s a decent read, but never breaks free of the clichés surrounding it.
It’s 1979, and seventeen-year-old Jackie Pierce has been sent to The Sandcastle – the house in Humboldt County belonging to her famous folksinger Uncle Graham Kingston – for the summer after her father and stepmother’s plans to leave Jackie with their loyal housekeeper have to be cancelled when the housekeeper’s mother breaks her hip. Jackie’s mother died at her birth, and her new stepmother does not understand her at all well. She has not been doing well in private school, although she has earned something of a negative reputation; classically Not Like The Other Girls, she hangs out with boys who appreciate her sense of humor. To Jackie, the woodlands and hills and forests surrounding the house form a sort of Eden; a place where she can be wild and free and more herself than ever before. Every day ends with Campfire, where all of Graham’s “flock” – family, musical disciples, etc. – meets near a roaring fire to perform some form of entertainment to earn their keep; there is sailing and surfing and hiking and time to be alone with her diary. Aunt Angela, Kate, the family helpmeet, and Willa – daughter of Angela and Graham – surround Jackie, and she tries her best to fit in among them. Most of all, she yearns for friendship with her cool, more athletic cousin Willa, who remains elusive and distant for Jackie’s first month there, living under the mistaken belief that Jackie is introverted. Jackie and Willa eventually become fast friends, and the summer seems like a magical idyll; each of them makes up a list of tasks to accomplish before September, and most of Willa’s involve living a normal life away from the stifling hippie enclosure of the compound. But the autumn melts those happy months away, and Jackie soon learns about the secrets bubbling under the surface of Angela and Graham’s marriage, an ugly truth that will change Willa and Jackie’s lives forever.
It’s 1999, and thirty-seven-year-old Jackie has a devoted boyfriend – a sixth-grade teacher named Paul – and, since the death of her Aunt Agatha, she’s owned Uncle Graham‘s expansive house, studio and back catalog. Taking a week to pack up the house before she sells it, she encounters Shane Ingraham, head of Blue Hour Music, Graham’s record label. Shane has big plans for Graham’s back catalog, and his legendary album Three, but Jackie rejects them – even when she hears that Aunt Angela approved of Shane’s idea for a tribute to Three that involves a star-studded album to be recorded at Graham’s studio. She gives in to Shane’s wishes, but as the musicians arrive to record, something unsettling enters the atmosphere. Soon, she finds herself caught between sensible, sane Paul and artistic, lonely Shane. What truth has Jackie been hiding about Graham’s death for all these years?
Lady Sunshine is good at creating atmosphere but less successful at creating believable characters who do likable things that enable readers to relate to them. Jackie I understood better as a teenager on the cusp of womanhood than as a wishy-washy woman ridding herself of a nice guy in favor of open field sex with a man who is basically her uncle’s stalker devotee. This is supposed to be Jackie’s reunion with the wild self she was always meant to be, but I continuously got the impression that she would have been better off getting a tattoo and running off to Paraguay.
The coming-of-age chapters are much, much better. Jackie and Willa are recognizable as your rich but everyday adolescents, Willa wishing to break free from her parent’s hippie milieu to experience life in the disco-happy late seventies, Jackie looking for freedom and something more daring. Even if the big beats – the uncaring parents, the loss of virginity, the big physical stunt, infidelity between the adults, the Big Moment of Physical abuse – have been done better by better authors, Doan manages to make them read like new poetry.
It’s the end of the book – when our leads make ridiculously huge choices in the present and past that feel ludicrous and make little sense – where the wheels come tumbling off. One choice in particular boggled my mind, especially when you consider how that person felt about the house, how hard she struggled to break free of it, and then what she condemns her progeny to deal with.
Lady Sunshine works in parts, but it is no Daisy Jones and the Six.