* UK GIVEAWAY WINNERS ANNOUNCED – SEE END OF POST *
One 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.
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.
UK PAPERBACK GIVEAWAY – WINNERS ANNOUNCED!
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.