In Laura Dave’s new novel Hello, Sunshine a major life hack ensues. It’s just not the kind of life hack you’re probably thinking of.
Sunshine Mackenzie is the YouTube equivalent of a younger Paula Deen. She is deemed a “lifestyle guru” by her many online fans, and commands the kind of Instagram life that people idolize in the age of social media. But like all sudden success stories, Sunshine has a secret. Well, several of them, actually. And one night at her 35th birthday party organized by her producer, a celebration of her impending book offer and looming contract with the Food Network, turn into her worst possible nightmare.
As it happens, nothing can remain completely hidden anymore, and the cruel Interweb has a claw with a very long reach. Every single detail that Sunshine was keeping neatly swept under the rug of her online persona has been thrust into the public eye by an anonymous hacker.
He or she not only exposes Sunshine as a blatant fraud, showing her recipes and her cooking abilities to be fake, but also proves her personal life to be likewise tainted when nude pictures of her during a one-night stand with her producer Ryan, are uploaded for everyone to see. Among the assembled merrymakers are the nefarious Ryan, Sunshine’s husband Danny, Ryan’s wife Meredith, and last to boot, the head of Sunshine’s book publisher. A well assembled cast for her professional demise.
The foreshadowing was there, although Sunshine failed to see it. She receives a cryptic email that morning with an obviously telling message: “Do you know who this is? Here’s a hint: I’m about to ruin you.” Sunshine is not so dense that she’s not rattled and the situation is made more serious by the confirmation that her Twitter account has been effectively hacked. But as is her style, Sunshine plans to hand off the problem to fix-it-all Ryan, barely registering in the back of her mind that she passed on sex with Danny for the curiosity of reading the emails that turn out to be the Chronicle of a Career Death Foretold.
Saying that Sunshine’s life is in shambles after the disastrous birthday party is certainly an understatement. She loses her husband, her fans and her book deal the same night. This is no spoiler, by the way. We know of her long and winding downfall from the very first page, so there really is nothing to hide there.
The real journey in spoilery tidbits would be telling you how Sunshine put herself in that spot to begin with. How her life became one big lie thanks to her unbound aspirations to instant celebrity status and Ryan’s own selfish recklessness and masterful manipulations.
Dave’s plot can be deemed superficial, but where Sunshine is concerned, it can be viewed if only momentarily, as quite the character study. The anti-heroine that Sunshine reprises here seems to have no real notion of what she’s done wrong. She displays her complete deer-in-the-headlights thinking to Danny when in the verge of his leaving, she argues that “everything is getting blown out of proportion.”
It’s unfortunate that Dave predictably falls unto the tropey story line of the shamed protagonist who goes back to her roots for soul-searching and to gain back her lost perspective on life, even though Sunshine assures us that this is definitely not what she’s doing. Which of course means, it is.
‘Home’ turns out to be Montauk, New York, away from the bright lights of Manhattan and the many people who can recognize and shame her on any given street corner. Throughout the novel, Sunshine keeps receiving notes from the hacker who ruined her life, always signed with the hashtag #aintnosunshine.
Part of Dave’s plot is Sunshine trying to get at the bottom of who the hacker really is, going from one possible suspect to the next. But when the unwelcome intruder is finally revealed, it throws her for a loop as much as it will possibly throw Dave’s readers as well.
In Montauk, Sunshine swiftly tries to re-invent herself by landing a job she would have found demeaning before, makes attempts to re-connect with a estranged sister who doesn’t really want her around and her special needs niece with whom she forms an unusual bond. She also establishes a kinship of sorts with Ethan, the local fisherman who conveniently has connections with everyone of import in town. But Sunshine’s attempts at redemption are mostly pitiful at best, and we can’t help but think that she’s putting on a show for the benefit of the cameras that are no longer there.
Hello, Sunshine is not a bad novel, but it’s not a great one either. Despite her best efforts and our own, we just can’t seem to feel sorry for Sunshine the way she wants us to feel, primarily because she doesn’t seem as sorry for lying to everyone as she should be.
Her apologies are always accompanied by a defense argument of “yes, but” and in many cases she lashes out as a defense mechanism. Except she isn’t forceful enough with the ones who truly deserve it, like Ryan who turns out to be quite the proverbial sleeze ball. The novel could have stood on stronger ground if Sunshine had seemed less Paula Deen and more Bill Clinton in her quest for forgiveness and endeavors to rise from the ashes.
We probably would have applauded her then.