Shine Shine Shine is a quirky, unexpected kind of book, and I really loved it. On the most basic level, it’s the story of a woman facing huge changes in her life while her scientist husband is in space on his way to the moon. It’s also a meditation on what it means to be human and what it means to be normal, but there’s nothing didactic or heavy about it.
On the surface — which is all we see in the first chapter — Sunny Mann’s life seems pretty near perfect. Her genius husband has made them rich, and they live in a wealthy suburb where she lives a wealthy suburban wife-life, with one child and another on the way. Her only problem seems to be her autistic son, Bubber. However, Bubber’s not the only one who’s not perfect. Every character in the book is damaged or flawed in some way.
Sunny, who works hard at maintaining an exterior impression of perfect normality, has her cover blown when a minor car accident causes her wig to fall off in view of some of her neighbours. Sunny has been completely bald from birth, and has been carefully hiding this fact from her friends and neighbours.
But, we learn, Sunny wasn’t always like this. Raised by her strong-willed independent mother Emma, who is now dying of cancer, Sunny was brought up as a free spirit who never tried to hide her baldness. Her closest childhood friend was Maxon, a brilliant kid from an abusive family. Maxon appears to be somewhere on the autistic spectrum, probably a high-functioning Asperger’s type (although we never see him with a diagnosis or a label) — he’s extremely smart but has huge difficulty with social interactions. Sunny and her mother help Maxon learn to be human — whatever that means — and he and Sunny eventually marry. It’s not until she’s pregnant with Bubber that Sunny begins to believe that she has to fit in, to be normal, to adapt to the world around her.
The storyline switches from present to past, and from Sunny’s point of view to Maxon’s. Over the course of a few days everything changes — Sunny stops wearing her wig, she yanks Bubber out of his preschool and off his meds, her mother dies alone in hospital, and the spacecraft with Maxon on it (he’s bringing a cargo of robots he designed himself, to establish a robot moon colony) suffers a potentially fatal accident. Meanwhile, in flashbacks, both Maxon and Sunny remember their childhoods, their early relationship, and how things have gone wrong as Sunny attempts to fit into a definition of normal that Maxon knows can never contain him.
Maxon admires his robots: the only three “human” things they can’t do, he concludes, are love, regret and forgive. Those are, of course, exactly the things Sonny and Maxon need to do, the things that make them human, whether or not they are “normal.” This is a poignant, thoughtful, beautiful little novel and I recommend it highly.