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Book Review, Books, Guest Authors

Guest Author – Lydia Netzer – Writing about Being Different


netzer_lydia_portraitOne of the greatest challenges faced by any writer of fiction is to create characters the reader will find relatable and recognisable but, at the same time, to make them unique individuals and not stereotypes. Lydia Netzer’s quirky and original debut features protagonists who aren’t remotely like anyone else, one of many reasons I picked it for my Top 10 Summer Reads. Shine Shine Shine has made a big impact in the States, being named a New York Times Notable Book of 2012, and to celebrate the title’s UK paperback release I invited Lydia to the Literary Sofa to explain what attracted her to writing about being different (my mini-review follows):

When I found out I was pregnant for the first time, terror quickly overwhelmed excitement. I worried I would be “that mom” – weird, unschooled in baby things, noticeably incapable of diaper folding, and humming Violent Femmes instead of Brahms’ Lullabye. I had a vision of what a mother should be like, of course. A nicely matching cardigan set with ballet flats, a highly organized tote bag full of plastic bowls that separate pretzels from carrots, a silver minivan. And there I was having just quit smoking, finished with my rock band, and pried myself from graduate school. How would I ever manage?

As I tried to learn to quilt and construct casseroles, I became interested in the way women see themselves when looking through the lens of motherhood, and how some quality or feature that was eccentric or cool could become threatening to that image of the perfect mother, who has annihilated her own identity to be a better parent for her child. It seemed as if invisibility was the goal, and anything odd or noticeable about the mother was to be suppressed. Fitting in is dangerous though. You can lose yourself.

From this fascination came the character of Sunny, who has successfully blended into her historic neighborhood despite being completely bald. Baldness became an external manifestation of that doubt that women have that they’re not good enough, that they’re too strange, too ignorant, too whatever  to be a mother. Baldness is something Sunny can cover up with blonde wigs and eyebrows. She can also pretend her scientific genius husband is normal, though he sees the world in terms of math equations.  She can heavily medicate her autistic child, and deny that her mother, on life support, needs to be allowed to let go.

But she can’t deny a car accident that sends her beautiful wig flying into a puddle in the middle of her own street, a moment that sets in motion an unraveling of the perfect, false life she’s created for her family as well as illuminating a path to a more authentic identity for her and those around her.

What I’ve learned in the last 13 years of motherhood is that my vision of the perfect mother was a myth from the start. That parade of silver minivans floating in perfect harmony with the universe is actually being piloted by real, flawed human beings who make mistakes, worry about their kids, and struggle just like I do. Writing about being different kind of outed me as a weirdo within my own circle of friends. But not one person came up to me and said, “Wow, Lydia, I had no idea you were such an eccentric!” They all knew. And not one person said, “Uh, now that we know you’re a writer with all these strange ideas about robots and marriage and math and sex, you can’t be part of our lives anymore.”

The desire to fit in can be a crippling imperative, especially when you feel that the success of your children rests on your ability to be just like all the other moms, and have everything together just as they do. But if you’re really being just like all the other moms, then you’re facing personal challenges, and harboring strange hobbies, and thinking odd thoughts as well. The perfect mother for your child is the one who showed up for the job – knobs and all.

It took me writing this book over a decade of parenting to learn this, but now I know: we are all different, there is no normal, and that is the best thing for our kids.

shineshinesh_paperback_coverIn Brief:  My View of Shine Shine Shine

Although I read this book late last summer, it has stayed with me. SSS has a genuinely original premise, juxtaposing big philosophical questions with the complex realities of family life in a way that is brave and highly intelligent.  Lydia Netzer took risks with this novel:  it is eccentric – chaotic even, at times, with a lot of back story.  It dares to examine and challenge aspects of American society and perceptions of what is normal or acceptable.  Despite its many layers, it’s very readable and the story is poignant and humane.  ‘Thought-provoking’ appears high on my list of qualities of a good novel, but excellent writing is even higher, and some of the prose here is sublime.  I’m delighted that many readers have discovered SSS on my Summer Reads and told me they enjoyed it as much as I did.


Lydia’s article has not only been the most viewed Literary Sofa guest post in the week of publication, but has also inspired some very heartfelt and touching comments as well as plenty of interest in her novel.  With many thanks to Simon & Schuster UK for their generosity and to all who entered and shared the post, I’m pleased to announce the 10 lucky winners of the paperback edition of Shine Shine Shine:

June Seghni, Helen MacKinven, Tom Voute, Jane Ide, Juliette Morrison, Anne Booth, Ben Blackman, Claire Snook and Barry Walsh.  Congratulations!  If you are on Twitter, please DM me your postal address.  If not, I will contact you by email.

About Isabel Costello

Writer (novels: Paris Mon Amour 2017; Scent 2021).Host of the Literary Sofa blog. Co-founder of Resilience for Writers with Voula Tsoflias. Perfume lover and Francophile.


29 thoughts on “Guest Author – Lydia Netzer – Writing about Being Different

  1. I dance to the beat of my own drum;I’m the oldest mum in my child’s class,white headscarf-wearing muslim convert (and large lady)..not a chance of ‘fitting in’, but my 9 year old daughter loves me just as I am, In actual fact though, my ‘otherness’ has enabled me to be friends with anybody and everybody since I don’t belong to any one group.. (But at 48 I look back at my younger self and realise it is the passage of time that has brought me to this position.my sense of self is much more robust than it used to be! )

    Posted by the bibliomane | July 15, 2013, 12:55
    • Good for you! I love your comment, and also the idea that not conforming to the expectations of a single social group actually liberates you to be yourself and relate to people as individuals. I agree with you about the benefits of age too – and it’s such a shame we can’t accelerate that wisdom. I was 40 before I realised nobody else cared what I looked like or what I did!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | July 17, 2013, 15:58
    • This sounds fascinating! I am in awe of Lydia’s wonderful imagination and I can’t wait to read this book!

      Posted by Susan Elliot Wright | July 18, 2013, 11:24
  2. I love the idea of exploring peer pressure and society’s expectation of ‘normal’ and motherhood. I had my first child aged 25 before almost all of my friends and often felt torn between trying to retain my sense of self with them (avoiding baby talk etc) and adapting to working part-time (halving my income) and getting to know a new social circle of other mothers. It wasn’t always an easy balancing act going from the Mother and Toddler Group one day to working in the city again the next.

    Posted by helenmackinven | July 15, 2013, 14:26
    • Helen, I can identify very strongly with what you say here, as well as with Lydia’s sentiments expressed in her piece. I was 30 when I had my eldest son and I would feel guilty coming away from gatherings where nobody wanted to have a conversation that wasn’t about babies. But whilst I found that boring, it was just as hard when I returned to work in the City part-time and found I’d lost my edge, couldn’t stay on top of things and that people saw me differently. It’s a tall order, this mothering lark!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | July 17, 2013, 16:04
  3. What about a male perspective on this fascinating post? And not any old male but one who is by times also inclined to view the world through equations and other abstract models. I remember when my kids were born, almost 40 years ago now, how it struck me that what we had here were in the first place incredible little physical survival machines. Their design can cope with so much variability in physical conditions. They actually need, I extrapolated, occasionally sub-optimal physical conditions to thrive and to learn to function effectively. The basis of this idea came from an uncle, a medical doctor whom I heard saying to my mum, much longer ago when I myself was a child, that “cleanliness is good, but it must never degenerate into hygiene”. I also learned, for example, a remarkable similarity between the design and packaging of electronic consumer goods and babies. To cope with possible rough and careless handling during transport, such products in their packaging are typically designed to withstand the impact a drop of 3 foot or so. When one of our babies once accidentally fell down from the kitchen worktop onto the stone kitchen floor, (also a drop of about 3 foot) my wife took him immediately to casualty at the hospital and was assured there and then that there was absolutely nothing wrong with him. When I heard about this when I came home from work, I was not in the least surprised by the outcome of this incident; it just made sense. (Unlike electronic products, I am not advocating the testing of babies from different heights this way!) My view of their minds was similar. Emotionally they need unconditional love to thrive, but intellectually their resilience, should, I believe, similarly never be underestimated. I never saw any reason why you should allow little children to bore you. That’s bad for both parties. I recall that I would for example start speaking German to them or invent animals which populated the house (such as “snufters”, very flat animals who live under the carpets) if I got too bored. “Field work” included a midnight exploration of the grave yard to establish the existence of ghosts – it proved inconclusive. I would never lower myself to “baby talk” – just imagine the pointlessness and indignity of that!
    The kids, now rather sane and balanced adults, managed to survive it all. The upshot of all this is that I would be fascinated, in a very clinical sense, to learn more about the nature of the social pressures which try to manufacture those weird and scary “perfect moms” and I would seriously wonder whether they, obviously quite unintentionally, retard – if not damage – their children’s development. And they must be excruciating people to meet.

    Posted by Tom Voute | July 15, 2013, 15:03
  4. Well, I’m not a mother and probably never will be now but I’m fascinated by how and why we try to blend in with our perceived idea of what everyone else expects or what we think they’re doing. I like the premise behind Lydia’s book being that Sunny has blended herself in to her neighbourhood until something happens to force her to become herself. People mimic others, dress the same, covet the same latest device or fashion in clothing, adopt the latest buzzwords and slang and it’s fascinating that it isn’t until something happens to force us to re-evaluate that or we have enough years behind us to see how unimportant it all is, that we finally (hopefully) become our true selves. I wish we could learn to celebrate our uniqueness and individuality much much earlier in life and not waste so much time and energy trying to fit in to an ideal that actually doesn’t exist anywhere in reality.

    Posted by Kath | July 15, 2013, 22:06
    • Well, I’ve already said this to Bibliomane, but I couldn’t agree more. Conformity is such a weird notion really and it causes so much conflict and unhappiness as well as making the world a less interesting place. There’s a woman in my neighbourhood who goes out every day with the full Frida Kahlo look – make-up, scarves, hair – it must take her ages and she gets a few strange looks but I always like seeing someone who dares to be themselves. Not that that’s always a visual thing, obviously.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | July 17, 2013, 16:10
    • It really took watching how my kids behave for me to truly learn this lesson. Kids do not give one speck of energy to keeping up appearances when they’re little. For me that was a powerful example.

      Posted by Lydia Netzer (@lostcheerio) | July 17, 2013, 19:46
  5. That’s another novel added to my TBR list, thanks Isabel. I saw on the Writers’ Hub that Lydia home schools her children, I did the same for my oldest child, for various reasons, and it’s always interesting to hear how the writing gets fitted in. Somehow, it just does I think. I sacrifice sleep and TV! Also, being an outsider or being eccentric is always an interesting theme, and it’s something I’m familiar with… if you live any aspect of your life outside the realms of “normality”, you know how it feels to be “outside”, looking in, or looking away. I always have felt like an observer, rather than a participator, and I actually think that’s very useful for a writer. if not necessary? I like nothing more than a good old eavesdrop, but I know that can make me seem aloof at times. Or nosy!

    Posted by Louise | July 16, 2013, 11:54
    • I think it does come across in Lydia’s writing that she is a real individual, and all the more interesting for it. I was so impressed by this novel for questioning things that are too easy to accept as normal. You’re right that writers need to be observers, and we do seem to have an obsession with outsiders. They feature in so many novels, mine included!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | July 17, 2013, 16:13
    • I find I can edit and tweak my writing at odd times and squeeze it in here and there, but for drafting I do need large chunks of time, usually when everyone else is in bed or hasn’t woken up yet, and this behavior can lead to severe sleep deprivation!

      Posted by Lydia Netzer (@lostcheerio) | July 17, 2013, 19:48
  6. “The perfect mother for your child is the one who showed up for the job – knobs and all.” Every mother (every parent) should get a card with this printed on, every year, on their child’s birthday. For at least the first twenty one years. xx

    Posted by janeide2013 | July 17, 2013, 09:58
    • What a lovely idea! There is so much bullshit out there about how to be a good mother – or the many ways you can mess it up – and all most of it achieves is to make women feel bad about their choices (if they are so lucky) and the job they’re doing. I know for a fact that my own mother didn’t sit around fretting about whether she was getting it right or obsessing over our emotional wellbeing!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | July 17, 2013, 16:17
    • When I was in labor with my second, and had elected to go natural, with no drugs or epidural, I found myself in the last few minutes really questioning my choices. I recall shouting at my midwife (bless her) that I couldn’t manage it, that she was a fool for thinking I could do it, that I was too crazy, too neurotic, too hyperanalytical (yes, I think I accused myself of being hyperanalytical during the throes of labor, which must on some level PROVE that I am in fact hyperanalytical) and she said, “Stop it! You absolutely can do this, Lydia and I know it.” And I whined, “WHY?” And she said, “Because you’re the only one who’s here.”

      Posted by Lydia Netzer (@lostcheerio) | July 17, 2013, 19:50
  7. Well, I’m sold, and will buy this whether I win a copy or not. As someone who is watching heterosexual friends announce their pregnancies left, right and centre, and someone who is very much broody, I am daunted by fears of how my future children will cope with two mummies. This would certainly prove an interesting, and ideally useful, novel.

    Posted by Amy Ekins (@AmyEWrites) | July 17, 2013, 16:24
    • I think it’s natural to find the prospect of parenthood daunting, whoever you are, but I’m sure your future children would love to have two mummies. If you don’t already know the lovely Carmen Haselup on Twitter, seek her out. She and her wife Kerry seem to be doing a fantastic job with their daughter and are very inspiring.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | July 18, 2013, 11:42
  8. This sounds like a great inspiring read. I am a mum to 3, two have aspergers and one that is suffering low self essteem and depression. that’s my family and we get on with it and everyone deals with situations in a different way. I would never choose other kids but they might choose to have a different mum?
    Being a mum is the hardest job, you dont even need an interview, you dont get paid and it is 24/7 with no annual leave but we love it

    Posted by juliette | July 17, 2013, 17:33
    • This really is an inspiring read – I bet you’d enjoy it. You have a lot on your plate by the sound of it but whether your kids would choose a different mum? I doubt it. I feel very deficient as a mother at times, but even though sparks regularly fly in our house, I know my kids wouldn’t change me any more than I’d want to change them. There’s no replacing your mum!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | July 18, 2013, 11:46
  9. This sounds great! I’m just getting the confidence to realise that it is OK to be different – and my life is so much more interesting as a result. Like Lydia, none of my friends or husband or children seem surprised by the ‘new me’ – just myself! I would love to read this book.

    Posted by bridgeanneartandwriting | July 18, 2013, 11:28
  10. My thoughts about being different are shaped by my own circumstances. I’d decided to be different, in the sense of going against societies expectations, by choosing not to have children. Something that people find all the more odd as I’m a teacher so spend my days working with scores of other people’s children.

    However, then I met my partner and became step-mother to a then five-year-old boy. I know many people these days are figuring out extended families and they’re all different in their own ways. I think my answer to it all is that you just have to figure out your own way.

    The book sounds fascinating and I’ll be buying a copy if I don’t win.

    Posted by naomifrisby | July 19, 2013, 18:07
  11. I always think I’m quite boring, not very different at all really. But that’s the way I like it. I was very shy growing up but have gained confidence as I get older. Still though, in a crowd I’d rather blend into the background rather than being centre of attention any day.

    The most important thing, I think, in terms of being different is – be yourself. Don’t just do things because other people think you should or tell you you should. Most important don’t believe the doubters. They’ll always tell you you can’t, shouldn’t, won’t be able to. You do your own thing! That’s what I say!

    Posted by benmblackman | July 20, 2013, 15:23
  12. A fantastic post. I always seem to cast myself in the role of “The Mum that’s not good enough” but it’s right that we probably all feel that way at times.

    Posted by Ruth Mancini (@RuthMancini1) | July 24, 2013, 21:46
  13. Going back a bit, but wanted to comment: I’ve just finished reading Shine Shine Shine and I really loved it! I have an Asperger’s person in my life, so I could relate to so much of this novel… also I’m a mum of 5 kids and I often have those inadequacy feelings going on… really enjoyed the novel and probably wouldn’t have known about it but for this blog. Thanks x

    Posted by louisewalters12 | November 26, 2013, 10:25
    • So glad you enjoyed this fine book, Louise. It’s really stayed with me and I read it well over a year ago. Lydia’s writing is beautiful and she sees the world in a very interesting and individual way. It’s always lovely when someone says they found a novel they really liked here!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | November 28, 2013, 09:08


  1. Pingback: Top Summer Reads 2013 | Isabel Costello - July 19, 2013

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