Shoulder Season is that time in resort towns that wind up towards and then extends from late summer through Labor Day, before the tourists leave and life in the towns return to normal. Christina Clancy’s vision of life in the waning days of the Playboy Club system is hampered by an unbelievably dopey heroine and a lack of originality, but at least it’s got some good moments of believable sisterhood in it.
In 2019, Sherri Taylor has become a special events manager at the Palm Springs Art Museum. She enjoys her job and has a boyfriend – and has no desire to retire. But then her past walks in the door, sucking her back into the disasters of her youth.
Flashback to 1981, on the cusp between the death of disco and the new wave revolution. This is East Troy, Wisconsin – and a more innocent, God-fearing Sherri (she plays organ at the local church) is dealing with the double-burden of the recent deaths of both her parents and paying off the resultant bills. She’s just finished nursing her mother through a long and sadly unsuccessful battle with cancer, and all she wants is to get out of East Troy. Her best friend Roberta has figured out a way to do that; Sherri will apply to become a Bunny at the nearby Lake Geneva Playboy Resort. Roberta applies too, but she doesn’t get in. Living in a “bunny hutch” surrounded by barbed wire, living and dreaming next to her fellow Bunnies, Sherri seems to have the world on a platter. She dives headfirst into adulthood, with wildly mixed results.
After a boatload of partying, Sherri then falls for a very different kind of man – Arthur, a handsome and generous artistic type, who she meets outside the club and comes to adore. He has no idea she’s a Bunny, which soon complicates their romance – but much worse is the dare she gives him that changes their lives forever. And then there’s golden California boy Mitch, Arthur’s best friend, a stuntman who likes cars and whose rough hands and smooth ways are the antithesis of poetic, romantic Arthur. Who will Sherri choose, and what kind of life will she end up living?
The biggest problem with Shoulder Season is Sherri, who is almost impossibly naïve. Sure, small town girls knew less and had to worry more about their reputations back then, but Sherri falls for the ‘charms’ of every single creep with a come-on line, from the bartender with dishonorable intentions to a couple of guys who pose as magazine representatives in order to take nude pictures of her, to a guy who tries to soak her for extra money when she tries to buy a car. It’s a decent enough exploration of period-typical sexism, but doesn’t feel like the brand that women were experiencing after entering the workforce en masse. Sherri’s parents, especially her mother, seem like nice, god-fearing people, but “don’t accept drinks from strangers” is something even god-fearing girls learn at a young age. Porky’s was released in 1981, for Pete’s sake! The innocence of the young American was at least in part a long-gone thing by this time. Sherri would’ve worked best as a character from the sixties rather than someone from the early eighties.
She’s also wildly self-destructive, and the world she ends up being a part of is part and parcel of that tendency. Sherri doesn’t even want to spend as much time as she does at the star-laden after-parties to which she gets invited, but she keeps getting drunk and going to them. Confronting what happened during her Bunny years allows her to mature, and put the grief which has stunted her adult years in its proper place. She comes off as childish even as an older woman, as much as she did make me laugh a couple of times.
The book’s exploration of life as a Bunny is really well-handled, with Clancy’s research digging up new facets about life as a resort club worker I’d never known about. But one, I suppose, is better off digging up biographies or even Gloria Steinham’s undercover sojourn into Bunny life versus Shoulder Season, which is a just okay romp through early eighties style hedonism, leading to a sad lesson and a sober morning after.