Wednesday, May 23, 2012: Maximum Shelf: Shine Shine Shine

St. Martin's Press: Shine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzer

St. Martin's: Shine, Shine, Shine by Lydia Netzer

St. Martin's Press: Shine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzer

St. Martin's Press: Shine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzer

Shine, Shine, Shine

by Lydia Netzer

Lydia Netzer's debut novel, Shine Shine Shine, introduces Maxon and Sunny, each an unlikely figure of romance separately, and in combination so improbable that they become the most charming and easy-to-root-for couple this side of the Sea of Tranquility.

Somewhere in space, a rocket ship carrying Maxon Mann and his robots speeds toward the moon, where the Nobel Prize winner will begin preparations for a lunar colony. Back on Earth, in their picture-perfect suburban home, his elegant blonde wife, Sunny, waits for Maxon to return, manages their autistic young son, Bubber, and watches her mother slowly die of cancer, all the while pregnant with their second child, a baby girl. One of the most vital cogs in their well-oiled machine of a neighborhood, Sunny plans to soldier on efficiently through her troubles, but the balance of her life is upset when a minor car accident claims a surprisingly important victim: Sunny's wig. Not only is Sunny not a natural blonde, she's completely bald. Born with a rare and puzzling condition, Sunny cannot grow hair anywhere on her body. Since her first pregnancy, Sunny's longing to blend in has caused her to don a series of elegant wigs, along with false eyebrows and eyelashes. Despite the misgivings of Maxon and her own mother, who raised Sunny to accept her condition, Sunny was sure Bubber would benefit from having a normal mother.

Now, her secret literally laid bare, Sunny confronts her assumptions about what normalcy is and whether it has any real benefits. Her quest for a normal life has led her to overmedicate her son, alienate her mother and, worst of all, turn against Maxon when he cannot fit into her vision of the perfect life. Reminiscing about their shared childhood in a failed Pennsylvania oil town, Sunny begins to realize that the only way to repair her marriage is to let go of the safeguards she has installed in their lives and allow her family to chart its own weird and wonderful course.

However, her realization may have come too late. A meteor strike leaves Maxon and his fellow astronauts stranded en route to the moon. Maxon and his robots are now the mission's only chance of survival. If they fail, Maxon will never see Sunny, the only woman he has ever loved, again.

Through a series of flashbacks interspersed with the present day scenes, Netzer slowly unravels the history of the imperious bald girl and the abused mathematical prodigy who would grow up to become Sunny and Maxon, forging their bond through a need for human connection as well as their sympathetic gifts. Free-spirited, dramatic Sunny helps Maxon unlock his feelings through his native language of equations, while his quiet genius and orderly ways provide a stability Sunny returns to time and again. Their understated yet defining attachment manages to be at once both epic and wholly believable, a storybook love that one can nonetheless imagine existing in the real world.

Netzer also explores the way mothers try to make the best possible choices for their children without realizing they may be doing more harm than good. Sunny's mother refuses to let Sunny hide her baldness, certain that Sunny can be whole only by accepting her condition. Sunny, in her turn, is willing to resort to any means to make Bubber more like a neurotypical child, believing that stifling his autistic traits is the only way to "fix" him. Their exploits tie into the novel's central theme--that happiness and fulfillment lie in embracing one's true self rather than trying to cover perceived flaws. Maxon, not sold on the idea of increasing Bubber's medication, advances an interesting theory, that what the outside world might view as disability in their family is actually unrecognized evolution, their bodies and minds deviating from the norm to prepare for a new world.

Through domestic squabbles, grief and meteor strikes, Shine Shine Shine remains an upbeat affirmation of life and self-discovery. Cleverly mixing mathematical equations with human relationships until the two seem inextricable, Netzer's logical yet whimsical voice combines with light touches of science fiction in a refreshingly original novel that will leave readers thinking about their own best selves.

St. Martin's Press, $24.99, hardcover, 9781250007070, July 17, 2012

St. Martin's Press: Shine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzer

Lydia Netzer: Parenting, True Love and Weirdos

Lydia Netzer, nerd, home-schooling mom and electric guitarist, lives in Virginia with her husband and two sons. She took time away from working on her second novel, a story of how the faith versus science conflict affects daily life, to talk with us about love, motherhood and Shine Shine Shine. The novel will be published by St. Martin's July 17, 2012 in hardcover and will also be available on CD, narrated by Joshilyn Jackson. Check out Netzer's blog here.

What inspired you to write Shine Shine Shine?

When I started the novel, I was a new mom, and I was paying close attention to the transition that women go through when they become mothers. As new mothers, we look at ourselves in a changed light. Instead of individuals responsible only for our own quirks and bobbles, we're now responsible for raising another human, and hopefully not embarrassing or ruining them in the process. Because, you know, kids have been ruined by store-bought cookies and non-matching ballet flats.

As I got into writing the character of Sunny, I thought it would be more interesting to create a character who had already gone through this transition into motherhood, and reinvented herself into this perfect, perfect wife and mother. Then the book could start with the moment it all came apart.

How did you manage to make one great story out of so many concepts?

The layers of the book fell into place over time... one thing led to another in a way that had its own logic. That's not to say that I didn't feel like I was trying to wrestle an octopus into pantyhose. I had awesome input from my amazing agent and my brilliant editor at St. Martin's, who assisted in getting several of the octopus's legs into sheers.

What does true love like Sunny and Maxon's look like in real life, and how can couples keep it alive?

To me, true love looks like true commitment. True love is burning the lifeboats. It's the totally unsafe feeling of leaving behind the possibility of retreating from your promise, and trusting the other person enough that you still feel safe. A lot of couples, even after marriage, are toying with the idea of leaving, or dealing in "what if" and contingencies and exit strategies.

When you disagree, or fail each other, or change, and you always have splitting up on the table, it makes a small problem into a huge one, and an argument that may have been limited in its inception can consume everything. Marrying someone, making that promise, you hand them a specific gun calibrated only for you. Ideally, they'll put that gun away and never touch it. Often, though, you see people take that gun out and wave it around. If your partner is committing a divorce-worthy offense like abusing you or cheating on you, don't threaten. Just go. Take the gun out, shoot them in the face with it, and leave. But if your partner is just irritating you, or disappointing you, or challenging you, "or else" should never feel like "or else I'll leave." That's just a weapon that should never be used as a threat.

Is Sunny's epiphany that she can accept her autistic son without "fixing" him a lesson society could stand to learn about special needs children?

I don't have any lesson to teach, nor do I think there is one right way to parent. But as a weirdo who is married to a weirdo and parenting two weirdos, I am saddened by our modern need to make sure everyone fits in, and functions smoothly, and checks all the necessary boxes. Some amazing and brilliant people do not and will never fit in.

This is not to say that weirdos should be encouraged to go full-on lunatic, and bark at heating vents and eat chalk. In raising Maxon, who as a child was "special" in an alarming way, Emma Butcher proactively trained him to be part of the world we live in, without stamping out all the things that made him "special" in a good way.

How did you come up with the idea to have Maxon express human interaction through mathematical equations, and who helped you formulate them?

I had this purely fanciful idea that some other person might interpret human interactions by applying mathematical principles, and that a math-brained child who was having trouble understanding social situations might be helped by teaching him to think of intuitive things in the language of math. However, I do not correctly speak the language of math, so I needed to bring in the experts: my husband, a computer coder, and my friend Andrea Kinnear, a mathematician and statistician.

I came up with a list of statements or rules for human behavior that I thought would translate well into math. Here's one we didn't use in the book. My statement: "If you've already used a line in a conversation, you shouldn't use the same line again in the same conversation." I gave this idea to Andrea, and she came back with:

Statements contributed to a conversation are to be sampled without replacement. If the A = set of conversational statements = {a, b, c, d} and b is sampled, the set of remaining statements = {a, c, d}

Some are drawings, some equations, some stated like theorems. All appear as if drawn by hand on a whiteboard, and the handwriting is my husband's.

Tell us about motherhood in your life and your writing.

As a mother, I am full of doubt. I've navigated attachment parenting failures and violin lesson breakdowns and karate school meltdowns and epic playground tantrums. Pretty much every kind of doubt that can cross a mother's mind has left tire tracks on mine. For me, Sunny's mother, Emma, is confident, aggressive and makes her choices without looking back. Sunny, on the other hand, has been so crippled by doubts and hesitation that she is denying her children their actual mother in favor of some Stepford simulation of what a mother should be. My hope for myself is that I can have the confidence to be who I am and a mother, too. --Jaclyn Fulwood

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