Shine Shine Shine

By Lydia Netzer
St. Martin’s Press, ISBN: 978-1250007070
Paperback, ©2012, 320 pages

Sunny is the social anchor of her neighborhood, coordinating craft shows and support groups, serving as the reliable and rock-steady block mom everyone turns to in a crisis. Maxon, her husband, is a genius engineer who is on his way to the moon to build robots that can then build a lunar colony. He adores Sunny, would do anything she asks. She has worked hard to create the perfect home, to be the perfect mother, the perfect wife. With an autistic son and a daughter on the way, she looks like a pillar of strength, riding out Maxon’s lengthy absence with the grace and charm her friends and neighbors have come to expect.

From the outside, her life looks flawless. From the inside, Sunny can see cracks in her facade. Then something in the Universe shifts. A fender-bender forces Sunny to own the truth of who she really is. A random accident hangs Maxon’s survival on a thread. Suddenly, Sunny’s world tilts at crazy angles. All her careful plans begin to fall apart, and she must re-learn what it means to be an average woman.

Shine Shine Shine is constructed similar to Sunny’s disguise. At first we see only the perfect face she shows the world. There was something off—I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what—about her story from the start, which made me want to know more. Netzer’s excellent pacing fleshes out the two main characters bit by bit, dealing tiny tidbits of information to build, slowly, a more complete picture of Sunny’s and Maxon’s backgrounds. With every revelation, I became more intrigued by the characters and the life they’d built together despite all their odds. It’s the tale of two unique individuals, surely, but it’s also a love story with a trace of science fiction at its core.

The novel’s intricacy hooked me from the start. The interrelationships between the characters kept me turning the pages. Every scene promised new breadcrumbs, and I ate them up one by one. I think it took me only a week to read the book—on lunchbreaks, on the treadmill at the gym, in-between other tasks, in bed at night long after I should have been sleeping. It was hard to put down, and I was sorry to finish the last page. I do feel like it ended too soon; some things were left hanging that I would have liked to see resolved, but then not every story needs a tidy denouement, does it? That’s Life. That’s fiction. That’s fact.

I really liked that the book is set in Norfolk, Virginia, my own town. While a lot goes on here, I suspect Norfolk isn’t exactly what most people would consider an exotic setting for a fictional tale. In fact, though, it’s a perfect setting for Sunny’s story. With Maxon’s involvement in a space mission, and both NASA and Langley nearby, Netzer’s choice of locale makes sense. Add to that the fact that Netzer also lives in Norfolk and knows the streets and neighborhoods and waterways as only a local can, and her imagery and scene descriptions take on a realistic authenticity that leaps off the page, making the location almost a character in its own right.

There are a number of reasons why I loved this book. I’ll name two. First, I loved the reality, the frailty of the characters. I could understand why Sunny would want a normal life. I understood how Maxon came to be who he was. I hung on every social precipice with Maxon and felt Sunny’s embarrassment at being exposed. Second, I loved the way Netzer led an eager me through the story to the very end by her expert salting of the current timeline with remembrances and bits of history. Even at the end, characters reveal truths about themselves that I never suspected.

The world of contemporary fiction holds a veritable treasure of exceptional books, so many that worthwhile novels can easily escape our notice. I usually search for new titles under the genre of science fiction or fantasy, so chances are I might have missed this particular gem if not for one fortunate detail. Netzer teaches classes at The Muse in Norfolk, two of which I’ve had the good fortune to experience. She’s an intelligent, quirky woman, an engaging quality which sparkles through in her work. I could see her behind every word and, for me, that made it an even more interesting read. But don’t think for a minute that I am pushing her book simply because I know the author. Shine Shine Shine was a New York Times Notable Book for 2012, an Amazon Spotlight Book of the Month, a Target Book Club Pick, and if that wasn’t enough, it was shortlisted for the LA Times Book Prize in Fiction. Sunny and Maxon’s story will draw you in and hold you spellbound through to the last page. An excellent read.