Not-So-Sunny Sides of the Sunshine State

Book review: Sunshine State, by Sarah Gerard

Sunshine State, up and coming literary darling Sarah Gerard’s essay collection rooted in her childhood home state of Florida, hits some high highs and low lows.

The opening essay, “BFF”, starts the book out as strongly as it could possibly be started; I was hooked. Gerard dreamily, wistfully details the twists and turns of a toxic young female friendship, touching on key incidents and events, stoking memory and nostalgia, weaving truths and lies, and writing evocative lines with a distinctly Florida flavor: “Our friendship was a swamp full of cottonmouths.” This essay was the highest point for me, it’s incomparably excellent.

“Records” is the lowest point, a skippable piece that sounds like every other story written about teenage high school drug use and experimentation with sex, with a couple of paragraphs about a rape by a sort-of boyfriend (in that hazy way that many teenage relationships can’t be labeled). I don’t want to sound callous; rape of any kind is horrifying and always worthy of discussion and writing to help oneself and others. But this addition to a long, meandering and never quite arriving piece about the stupid things high schoolers do, and their feelings and doings while on ecstasy felt like an afterthought, and a not particularly well articulated one at that. It was a frustratingly missed opportunity to work through a troubling topic.

It’s unfortunate too, because after reading what she’s capable of, the strong writing chops that she has, all I could thinking reading “Records” was that I could be reading something else, anything else, right now, and maybe I should be. And she’s far too good of a writer for that.

The title essay, about Gerard’s experiences volunteering with the controversial and scandal-plagued Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, is a strong piece. She really shows her ability in handling what I’d call Florida characters here, masterfully choosing when to let them speak in their own words. Ralph, the sanctuary’s founder, is a strange and troubled guy, unable to tell the whole truth about issues facing the sanctuary, his own relationship to the organization, and to top it all off, he’s a hoarder. It makes for an interesting investigative journalism piece.

“Going Diamond” about the Amway pyramid scheme and its evangelical, “compassionate capitalism” founders is absolutely a must-read. One of said founders, Rich DeVos, is the father-in-law of Betsy DeVos – the remarkably unqualified woman who’s now our remarkably unqualified Secretary of Education, with her background of pushing taxpayer-funded private school vouchers (touched on here).

I didn’t particularly like that this essay’s format is divided and some segments are imagined conversations selling the affluent fantasy Amway lifestyle (it’s like a mix of investigative journalism and fictional short story), but the overall impact of the piece is powerful. It’s pretty disturbing stuff. I’d love to see her do an investigative journalistic series on all the loons and their closets full o’skeletons in the new presidential Cabinet of Horrors.

In “Mother-Father God”, she details her parents’ and her childhood experience in the New Thought spiritual movement. A child’s perspective on religion and religious groups is always interesting to me, and her observations are especially clear. “I knew what I should feel when I read them [Bible stories] because I’d felt hints of it before – a sudden thrilling clarity. I could never make that clarity stay; as soon as I sensed it, it dissipated.”

The minutiae of her parents’ work in the group and of New Thought’s various operations or other branches of church businesses dragged though. It could’ve been a revealing piece, similar to the one about her family’s involvement with Amway and Amway’s penchant for scamming, but it didn’t get there. Parts of it read more like a reporter’s notes and facts for a story.

In “Rabbit”, she tells the absolutely heart wrenching, immediately relatable for anyone who’s loved and lost a grandparent story of her own experiences losing her grandparents. I don’t like reading tearjerking material, but this felt strangely helpful – if you can relate, there’s some comfort that others have endured painful, unchangeable moments too. It’s hard to read with a lump in your throat, but I ultimately felt better for it.

That’s how I felt about the collection as a whole. Sometimes difficult to read, not always perfect but absolutely gorgeous in parts, and ultimately I’m better for reading it, flaws and all. I’ll be looking forward to any nonfiction from her in the future, I think she can only get better from here.

Sunshine State: Essays
by Sarah Gerard

published April 11, 2017 by Harper Perennial (Harper Collins)

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for review.

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