Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Book Review: Sunshine by Marion Dane Bauer (2021) (ARC)

Ben has been living with his single dad and an imaginary dog named Sunshine ever since his mom left the family when Ben was very young. This summer, though, Ben has been invited to visit his mom on the secluded island where she lives, and he is determined to get some answers. He also believes that if he is appealing enough, she will want to return to their family home and pick up where they left off. 

This review contains spoilers because it's the only way I can explain what is wrong with the book.

This book rubbed me the wrong way from the beginning. To me, Ben is obviously a character with a lot of psychological trauma associated with his mom leaving home, and his imaginary dog is a very sad and somewhat creepy manifestation of that trauma. Neither of his parents seem to care about the deeper issues underlying the fact that their son speaks to, pets, and even feeds an animal everyone knows is not there. His dad is disapproving, and his mom is overly accommodating, but no one is taking a healthy approach to dealing with what is very obviously a deep pain in this boy's life.

I also nearly flew into a blind rage when I heard that the mother, a victim of physical abuse herself, lost her temper with her preschooler once, and immediately walked out on the family never to return as a means of keeping her son safe. The author clearly wants me to view this woman as a hero, but the character doesn't strike me that way at all. There were plenty of ways she could have dealt with her brief instinct to hit her child, and to say that abandoning her son, who then develops a hallucination as a coping mechanism, was the right thing to do is appalling. 

I'm honestly not sure why the world needs this book. The writing is fine, but the idea that this kid accepts his mother's explanation and immediately forgives her is troubling, as is the ending where the imaginary dog goes to live with the mother until Ben comes back next year. I left the story feeling as though no one learned anything and the mother was absolved of her wrongdoing without even apologizing for the right thing. I thought I was reading a book about a boy who would face the questions of his past and move forward for himself. Instead, it wound up that Ben's mother keeps his weird doggie delusion going and apparently gets to continue to live without the responsibility of caring for her child even now that she can clearly be trusted to look after him without beating him up. And Ben has learned to feel good about his mom leaving him because it was actually heroic. There are too many mental gymnastics involved in trying to make sense of how this is a happy ending. 

Candlewick provided me with an ARC of Sunshine, which comes out May 18, 2021. I chose to read it based on the author, but in the end, it was just not the book for me or my family. Your mileage may vary, but, especially if you are a mom, probably not by much.

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