Sunshine and Shadow
Grade : A-

I owe Sharon and Tom Curtis a great debt. Their romance classic The Windflower is my absolute favorite romance, and I have read it many, many times over the years both for entertainment and for comfort. Sunshine and Shadow I have read twice – once right after I discovered their writing ten years ago, and then again recently. I remembered it mainly as a real tearjerker, and I was right. But it’s more than that.

Ian Wilde is a wunderkind actor turned director who has a small problem. The actress playing the lead in the horror film he is shooting just dropped out after an accidental overdose, and he needs to fill her role quickly. He is contemplating this problem when Susan, an Amish schoolteacher, and her pupils rather dramatically stumble onto his set. Viewing the footage of this comical intrusion later, Alan sees that Susan has a film presence and is stunning on camera. Captivated by her himself, he offers her the job of movie heroine, intending to use her in his film and in his bed.

Susan is embarrassed by her mistake and hesitant to get involved with the English movie people. But the money Alan offers her for the part would give her sister Rachel a better chance at success out in the English world. Rachel has left the Amish and has been shunned by her family and community, and Susan worries for her. And if she is being honest, she is intrigued by Alan’s commanding and seductive presence. She is reasonably sure, though, that she can resist the temptation inherent in his offer, do the job, and come out of the experience unscathed. Boy, is she ever wrong in that assumption.

Sunshine and Shadow divides fairly neatly into thirds. The first third is the lightest and easiest to read. I whipped through the first hundred pages, entranced by Alan’s attempts to seduce Susan and his own slow seduction by Amish simplicity. He and Susan are real opposites, but they have a chemistry together that is more than just sexual. Their scenes together are by turns funny, sexy, and sweet.

The second third was harder to read. Much harder. I took a break for awhile as the suspense built. By this time it was clear that Alan and Susan were seriously playing with fire, and they were going to burn the village down with them, all of it. This might be the only romance I’ve read that I can recall thinking, “Please don't have sex. Just don't do it. It'll never work. Everything will go downhill. Her family will disown her. Don’t do it.” Even though other sins are far more serious in the minds of her Amish community, it’s clear that intimacy between them will bring everything to a very ugly head. And it does.

The last third was the emotional roller coaster, with me getting misty practically every other page. Honestly, the conflict here is so intense, so internal, it seems like there can be no solution. Susan is Amish. She cannot separate herself from her faith, her family, her simple lifestyle. Outside of them there is no Susan. But inside of them there can be no Alan. The book’s denouement then is as creative and immensely touching as it is unexpected.

One of the Curtises’ real strengths is characterization. This is more than evident here. Their Amish people here think and act like Amish, using their views of God and their religion in their perceptions of the world around them. Yet the book is not an inspirational. Agnostic or atheist characters think and act with no reference to or even hostility towards religion and are just as sympathetic. Late in the book we get into Susan’s sister, Rachel’s, head briefly and her disillusionment with her religion reads with as much validity as Susan’s father’s insistence on religious tradition. And their conflict suddenly seems less about religion and more like the clang and clatter of two strong personalities crashing together. One short scene manages to illustrate clearly their entire history as father and daughter. That’s talent.

However, lest you think there is no message here, I will clarify. Alan is redeemed from his lifestyle of apathy and moral ambivalence. His numbness is turned to acute sensitivity – but not by his discovery of God. He is transformed by Susan’s joy, her caring, loyalty, and selflessness, and by the nature’s glorious beauty. If you’ve ever read anything else by the Curtises, you will have noticed that they manage to include quite a lot of side description and information regarding the local flora and fauna. In fact, if you can’t stand rather extensive description of natural phenomenon, I’d almost go as far as to warn you off them. It’s clear they have a love for and fascination with living things – rabbits, horses, dogs, flowers, trees, humus, even insects. In setting their book in Amish country, they were free to let their imaginations roam and explore this in a way they weren’t in their books set in Regency England. And it’s this beauty and this glory that Susan is steeped in via her traditions and speaks to Alan loudly enough to pull him out of his own sterile, overly mechanical existence.

Sunshine and Shadow is unlikely ever to become a comfort read for me. It’s not as witty or adventurous or carefully plotted as The Windflower. But it is a wonderful love story, nonetheless, full of emotion and insight into human relationships and needs and very touching. It’s also available quite cheap used online, and, for those readers who haven’t yet experienced the Curtises’ great talent, this would be an excellent place to dive in.

Reviewed by Rachel Potter
Grade : A-

Sensuality: Subtle

Review Date : December 8, 2009

Publication Date: 1986

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