The Summer of Sunshine & Margot
Susan Mallery’s The Summer of Sunshine and Margot is the story of two sisters who are complete opposites struggling with old baggage and new lives.
No matter how difficult things get, the Baxter girls are always there for one another. Having been abandoned by their mother at birth, they were raised by their image-obsessed pageant consultant grandmother, and both bear the scars of her parenting as they muddle through life.
Alec Mcnicol hires Margot as an etiquette coach for his mother, the quirky character actress Bianca Wray, whose engagement to a diplomat is going to see her having to move in very different circles from the ones she currently inhabits. Seeing as Bianca is better known for sex tapes and flashing her boobs at the Academy Awards than her grace and poise, Margot has her work cut out for her, and agrees to spend the summer at Alec’s converted monastery home coaching party-loving Bianca about the dos and don’ts of high society, Margot doesn’t expect to begin to fall in love with the guarded Alec along the way.
Margot’s fraternal twin sister, Sunshine, has a very different problem. Blaming her bombshell body for the way others treat her, she’s constantly falling into insta-love with the wrong guys, choices that has wrecked her life and ruined her multiple attempts to start a serious career. Swearing off men, she’s trying to settle down, has enrolled in college and bought a car with help from Margot, and is working as a nanny for young Connor Dubois. Since his dad, Declan, has been recently widowed she figures he won’t be romantically interested in her – but unfortunately for her, Declan’s marriage has been dead longer than his wife, and he’s got eyes for Sunshine and the effortless joy she brings into his family.
Soon, Bianca takes Margot and Sunshine under her wing, and the women form a friendship that faces many ups and downs as the twins pursue (or are pursued by) their men. Margot tries to loosen up, Sunshine tries to grow up, and Bianca tries to rise to the occasion. But there’s a secret behind Bianca’s joie de vivre that prompts her bad behavior in public – a secret that could shatter all of the progress she’s made.
The Summer of Sunshine and Margot works as both a contemporary women’s novel and a character study of three opposing personalities that come together and learn to deal with their pain.
Each couple and main character has issues that are interesting to peel apart. Margot and Alec are a study in repression. She wears a ponytail and is businesslike to the core, and he is the flavor of conservative that allows him to collect erotic netsuke sculptures and hide them behind a secret panel. Part of me honestly wished that he were with Sunshine, because the dynamic between them would have been a hair less predictable and more friction-heavy, yet Margot and Alec were a charming pairing of similar personalities.
I was less keen on Sunshine and Declan’s love story, though that wasn’t Sunshine’s fault. Their relationship contains a major stumbling block that kept the book from reaching A-grade territory, which is the post-mortem characterization of his late wife as a shrew. It’s not enough that she’s been dead of cancer for five months, we have to be told that their marriage had been crumbling for years beforehand because of her infidelity, just to hammer in how good Sunshine is and how bad the dead wife was. Why not simply have the poor woman be dead for a few years and Declan at a realistic post-mourning point that would allow him to date but have Sunshine still feel weird about being with her because of Connor’s attachment to his mother? Come on, authors, you don’t have to convince us our hero (and his kids) love New Mommy much much more than Old Mommy, especially in this fashion. The best parts of Sunshine’s story are definitely about her learning how to accept fault for her choices. I even liked little Connor who, with his ant obsession, felt realistically kid-like.
My favorite character though was flawed, lively Bianca – I could have spent multiple books with her. At first she’s an amusing cross between Jayne Mansfield and Pamela Anderson – Jayne, in fact, did pull some of the stunts in real life that Bianca does in fiction. But then a very deep, very trigger-inducing surprise is revealed about her past that explains her moments of aggression and make her even more sympathetic than she already was. And yes, this part of the plot includes a warning for child abuse, physical and emotional.
The rest of The Summer of Sunshine and Margot’s flaws are minor, such as the unnecessary stalker, an ex-boyfriend of Margot’s who appears briefly and hangs in the background until the plot needs Alec to take a level in badass. Oh, and there’s also a scene where our protagonists go sock-skating in a puddle of spilled soup, which is supposed to be charming but just nauseatingly reminded me of Patch Adams rolling around in a pool of cold spaghetti.
Otherwise though,The Summer of Sunshine and Margot is a fun, full-blooded story of friendship, romance, letting go and accepting yourself, and is the best of Mallery’s recent novels.