A profile in dishonesty, a character we still like (Manhattan and Montauk, Long Island; June-August present-day): Laura Dave knows something about dream jobs. Three of her five bestsellers have been optioned for movies, including her newest charmer Hello, Sunshine. So in Sunshine Mackenzie, she’s cooked up a cooking star with a dream job, dreamy husband, and daydream Tribeca loft overlooking the Hudson River. Except sometimes dreams can be too good to be true. As Sunny – and her 2.7 million Twitter followers and 1.5 million so-called “friends” on Facebook and all Dave’s fans – are about to find out when someone tweets out of her account: “I’m a fraud. #aintnosunshine.”
People in Sunshine’s universe wanted to believe she was the real deal: a YouTube cooking sensation (#1 in the hot competition for that lucrative spot) whose “farm-to-table recipes” straight from her Georgia farm upbringing evoked a simpler, more wholesome time. Except Sunny cannot cook, and those easy, mouthwatering recipes she’s touted as her very own originated from someone else.
Got to hand it to the novel’s sunny title and bright design for demonstrating how easy it is to fool us, somewhat. While it is true it’s a breezy read, it’s also a serious statement about honesty and fairness in the digital age.
Truthfulness is a timeless, old-fashioned virtue. Dave drives home a cautionary contemporary tale. “It’s amazing, after all, what you ignore when you want something to be right, isn’t it? Like in this case the truth,” Sunny airs, now that she’s been unmasked as other than the innocent she purports to be. Maybe she didn’t intend to put out falsehoods and the downhome cooking concept wasn’t even hers at first, but one fabrication led to another until little white lies became big ones. At what point should she have said enough is enough? The game’s not cute anymore; we’ve gone too far. Makes you wonder if the inventors of the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram etc. considered the extent to which unintended consequences – ethical, moral, societal, psychological – could overshadow intended benefits? How can we fix that now?
Hello, Sunshine, like our protagonist, is disguised. On the surface, it’s a smart, fun read packed with laser-sharp one-liners – zingers that flash cynicism, anger, and resentment at betrayals and guile with standout, realistic (not all enchanted!) dialogue already scripted for the big screen. Yet underneath, it’s a condemnation of a society that’s gotten too cozy with people who have a “loose hold on the truth.”
Sunshine’s scandal kicks-off as summertime kicks in (the June Part) with this punchy, opening paragraph:
You should probably know two things up front. And the first is this: On my thirty-fifth birthday, the day I lost my career and my husband and my home in one uncompromising swoop – I woke up to one of my favorite songs playing on the radio-alarm clock. I woke up to “Moonlight Mile” …
Sunshine then proceeds to tell us about Moonlight Mile, that it’s “the most honest rock song ever recorded.” The Rolling Stones songwriter, guitarist Mick Taylor, never got the credit for it. There’s our theme: honesty or the lack thereof. Someone taking credit for something he or she didn’t earn.
Such an engaging opener you forget there’s something else Sunny wanted us to know. Which she tells us a few pages in, admitting she was not “a good person. Some would even say I was a bad person.” She can bear herself brutally because once upon a time she “used to be a very honest person.” But she’s mastered – from her producer pro, forty-year-old Ryan Landy – how-to be “charming, deceitful.” So when she unveils that second thing, she confesses to gaming us too by letting us wait a bit, a strategy for “garnering sympathy.”
How did she become, as she also admits, a “seasoned liar”? Terrific adjective since her deceptions blended in with the seasonings. Truth is when you lie about one thing and get rather good at it (she can’t get over the “ease and strength in which people lied”), turns out you lie about other things. So when you’re ruthlessly exposed, your whole world collapses like a house of cards. Not exactly a sunny June, a sunny birthday celebration!
June is also when we meet other characters who figure in Sunshine’s shattered world. One is her dreamy husband, Danny, with “stunning green eyes” and a “killer smile.” They’ve been married fourteen years, college sweethearts. He’s an architect working on a coveted project, a 5,000 square foot residence with views of Central Park. The truth about Danny is he truly loves Sunny, though you may feel otherwise as their lives fall apart.
Some around Sunshine knew truths about her, but “people only spoke up about something if it benefited them,” Sunny perceptively says. That line really hit me having just watched The Zookeeper’s Wife based on real events about a Polish couple risking their lives to rescue 300 Jews during WWII because it was morally just. A stark contrast between their profiles in courage versus Sunshine’s “faux-sympathy” orbit and today’s political climate.
July is when Sunshine faces a friendless world despite all those million “friends.” Having no place to go, she returns to Montauk, where she’s really from. Though the truth of her former life along the tip of the Hamptons is “not as showy,” it’s a long way from the farm girl image she impersonated.
Among the “dunes, beach, charm” of Montauk the real Sunshine Stephens shows up. As do a number of colorful characters from her past and beaten-down present. Here is where we learn what drove her away, and why pretending to be someone other than who she was took such hold.
These are sad times, but not everything is bad. The imagery of Montauk – Atlantic Ocean, sustainable fishing, old working lighthouse, for starters. There’s also some good people. They and this special place seem to hold the answers to the peace and healing Sunshine desperately needs.
Not so fast! Sunshine has a lot on her plate and recovery does not come overnight. August is when she works at reclaiming her former self, or perhaps a truer self. As Sunny seeks to become a good person again, we wonder if you have to lose it all to truly find yourself?
So grab this entertaining, perfectly-sized vacation read (256 pages, short-chapters), and play around with who you’d cast in the starring role of Sunshine. More food for thought.