Another Thursday, another book I haven’t quite finished in time. Sure, it’s only noon here, and I could put aside the other work I have for the day to finish Sunshine before writing my review, but I won’t. See how I defy you, deadline gods?! See how I spit in the face of completion!?! Or, well, not so much spit, as gently bat away…anxiously…with the baleful eyes of expectant English teachers upon me…
I am trying to care a little less about deadlines though, and a little more about the quality of my reading experience, so if that means battling a little OCD anxiety, I can handle it. Also, this is both a fun book and one I keep putting down to think about; it refuses to be rushed.
Now, I’m going to throw something out here that might cause a few of you to stop reading this post as quickly as your eyes and internet connection will allow, but I implore you – stay with me – if only for a minute. Don’t make me send you over to The Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy article “Beware Literary Snobbery,” because I will. Just take a deep breath and refrain from judgement – Sunshine is like the thinking-reader’s Twilight.
If I had to guess, I would say about a third of readers just bristled on Bella’s behalf, about half threw up in their mouths, and the remaining few are scratching their heads because they live in a cave (or like to pretend they do). I get it (even the cave thing – I’m not aware of about half the pop culture happenings at any given moment). The Twilight books have this curiously divisive effect on readers; as soon as they’re mentioned, heads shake, self-satisfied smirks appear, and furious arguments break out.
Personally, I don’t understand what the big deal is. I read them. Sure, the heroine of those stories is a pretty unexceptional teenager whose life revolves around her boyfriend, but do you stop loving your children just because they act like that? Or do you remember, in a sort of nostalgic, “thank goodness my hormones have the edge taken off” sort of way what it was like to be young and stubborn and in love? Do you give Juliet as hard a time as you do Bella? Because believe me, when I first read Romeo and Juliet, all I could think was, really? Poison? Was he worth it? You knew him, what, three days?! Give me a break. And I was boy crazy. I have a diary from the first grade talking about crushes and kissing boys on the playground to prove it!
But I digress. One of the reasons people give Twilight such a hard time is that they don’t consider Bella to be a strong role model for young women. She’s too ordinary. She’s weak. She needs a man to make her life worthwhile. When I started reading Sunshine, I couldn’t help but compare her to McKinley’s protagonist, Rae Seddon (aka Sunshine). Rae is older (around 25). She has a job she loves baking in her family’s diner. She has a boyfriend she seems at least content with. She has, by all accounts, a good life, and yet she’s restless. Unhappy. And whether she means to or not, she seeks out adventure – ugly, life-changing, unromantic adventure – that in just two days separates her from the life she’s had.
And that separation makes her weak. She’s afraid all the time. She can’t heal from the psychic or physical stress of her experience. It’s alienating, even when what she wants most is to go back to a safer, more ignorant existence.
Now, I’m only a little over halfway through the book, so maybe it takes a more traditionally romantic turn. If so, I don’t expect it’s the focus of the story in the same way Bella’s love triangle is the focus of the Twilight books. Sunshine is more of a dystopian novel that happens to have vampires than a vampire novel that happens to have romance.
That being said, I still find these two protagonists to be more similar than I expected. They’re incredibly vulnerable. They’re loners, more by choice than by necessity, and yet, when faced with strangeness and horror that would stretch the imaginations of many people, they both do their best to stand against the worst parts and accept that vampires might be more than the sum of the stories told about them. They allow a bridge to form between themselves and a supernatural community where none could have been erected to connect them with their own.
McKinley just manages to do this in a way that appeals to a wider audience. She also doesn’t make the mistake that often (sadly) damns YA books from greater acceptance – she doesn’t choose a teenager to tell her story. I love YA as a genre, and I remember my own teens as being an insane(ly interesting) time, so I enjoy reading from that perspective. Other people don’t relate well to those characters and feel more comfortable in other genres. Fortunately, books exist that bridge the gap for both types of readers, and Sunshine is one of those books.
It’s part suspense, part character study, part family drama with a little comedy to humanize it. I still find McKinley’s pacing to be on the slower side, but it works well in this book, better than it did in Beauty. Rae is a thoughtful woman – the book reflects that. I believe that, like most of us, she doesn’t want to go rushing headlong into unknown danger, and this makes me like her even more. Also, while she and Bella are both flawed women, Rae has an edge in the wisdom department – sure, twenty-five is no fifty when it comes to making good choices – but it beats sixteen almost every time.
Honestly, I like Bella; she does the best she can with the story provided her, but Rae has untapped depth, and I look forward to curling up with this book tonight and following her back into the unpredictable underbelly of her world.
You can follow Robin McKinley here.