My children are older now but I do remember the bone-weary exhaustion of their infanthoods. My oldest child slept through the night at 4 days old and I was pretty sure my mom was a rock star for accomplishing that for me (and I was a rock star since nothing I did changed that). Of course, that child, now a teenager, is still a champion sleeper so it obviously wasn't us. But my other two children proved that it was nothing I did and took me right to the very edge of sanity with sleep deprivation, not sleeping through the night until 7 and 11 months respectively. The youngest one even drove me to tell my husband that I understood how people could abuse babies because if I didn't get some sleep soon, I was going to pitch him (the baby) out his window onto his head. We started letting him cry it out that very night. And honestly, after the few nights it took him to learn to go to sleep and stay asleep, the very first morning after a full night's sleep for me was bliss, nirvana, and heaven all rolled together into one and I felt like an entirely new, much happier person. Thea Goodman's novel The Sunshine When She's Gone takes the premise of the weary, sleep-deprived new parents and ups the ante quie a lot.
Baby Clara is six months old and she has finally slept through the night for the first time. On this wintery Friday morning, John sees his exhausted, sick wife sleeping deeply and decides that he'll take the baby for breakfast and let Veronica rest. He bundles the baby up, leaves a note, collects the mail, and heads out. When the diner is closed, John contemplates his options for the morning. Having just opened the pile of mail with the family's passports in it, he spontaneously orders the cab to take him to the airport where he and Clara board a plane to Barbados. He's not thinking clearly, acting on the spur of the moment, and just searching for the sun and warmth that is physically missing not only from New York City in the winter but also metaphorically in his marriage since the baby arrived.
When Veronica finally wakes up that morning, she feels so much better than she has in months and while she is a little perplexed that John has cancelled the nanny for the day, she appreciates the thought behind him taking care of Clara, freeing her to go about her day and her work life almost like she did before she became a mother. Almost but not quite though. She is a bit annoyed that she can't seem to get ahold of John to see how Clara is but in the grand scheme of things, she is mostly appreciative and not too terribly concerned. Meanwhile John is feeling pretty good about taking off for Barbados with the baby. He's spending more quality time with this cheerful, cooing human being than he has yet and he's thinking that it's not so hard to care for her. Inexplicably, he calls home and lies, leaving Veronica a message telling her that he's taken the baby to his mother's for the night and that they'll see her the next day.
As John discovers how tough it can be to have sole care of a baby, Veronica connects with their friends Art and Ines who are facing the scary uncertainties and potential problems of early pregnancy. The couples have known each other a very long time and some of their history is explored, especially the recent history since Clara's birth, highlighting and clarifying the conflicted feelings Veronica has about being a mother and the widening rifts in the John and Veronica's marriage. Both John's and Veronica's weekends start to spiral out of control, worsened by outside influences and their own impulsive reactions.
Goodman has in fact captured the desperation of sleep deprived parents, their impaired decision making, and the sometime longing to revert back to life before baby in this novel and she certainly hasn't sugar-coated it in any way. Especially later in the book, there's a hallucinatory feel to the narrative that represents this state of being very well. John initially comes off as a sweet, baffled man who mourns the loss of the couple that he and Veronica were before Clara and who wants nothing more than to find that engaging wife again. But he becomes harder to sympathize with as the narrative goes on and he chooses to keep Veronica in the dark about where he and Clara actually are. Veronica appears to be suffering from post-partum depression in addition to her sleep deprivation but there's very little about her that is particularly appealing. Motherhood can in fact be a tough struggle made harder by guilt over the lack of fuzzy bunny thoughts that society says new mothers should have but Veronica seems to be an extreme whose own incredibly poor choices make her less and less likable.
The narration swing back and forth between John and Veronica during this weekend and this method not only allows the reader to see how each is carrying on in the absence of the other (and with or without Clara) but it also keeps the tension level high as both of them move closer and closer to their lowest, most dangerous moment and ultimately to their returns to each other. The reader quite literally reads with heart in throat and a terrible sense of mounting unease. The ending is a bit abrupt and skips over answering the hard questions about how they moved past the weekend both together and separately but it does give a few clues as to the state of their marriage and their future even if it doesn't explain how they got there. An intriguing and quick read about marriage and parenthood and coping, this is a bit of a cautionary tale but one that most parents, especially new parents will find at least a bit familiar and true even if not to the same degree.
Thanks to LibraryThing Early Reviewers for sending me a copy of this book to review.