Brave, keenly observational, and humanitarian, Gerard’s (Binary Star) collection of essays illuminates the stark realities of Florida’s Gulf Coast. With a mixture of investigative journalism and firsthand experience, she brings to life outspoken zealots, hopeless romantics, and escapist youth. She describes the hunger of Christian Scientists for earthly and spiritual wellness, Amway members for self-determined success, adolescents for reckless euphoria, testosterone-flooded males for dominance, and the underprivileged for nothing more than adequate housing and shelter. Gerard is a virtuoso of language, which in her hands is precise, unlabored, and quietly wrought with emotion. As evinced by the extensive bibliography and endnotes, she is also a very diligent journalist. To some, her thorough analyses of flawed legislation, business, religion, and literary journalism may feel long-winded at times, but readers interested in those topics will be fascinated. The chapters that will reach any reader are her deeply sad yet valiant personal essays on youth and death. Gerard’s collection leaves an indelible impression. Fans of literary nonfiction and dark reverie will welcome it. (Apr.)
Poignant and unflinching personal essays… paint a portrait of a state ravaged by economic hardship but enriched by cultural diversity…. [A] brilliant first collection.
Perfectly captures the idiosyncrasies of the Gulf Coast… [filled with] tragic-comic characters who embody the state’s combination of beauty, sadness, hope, and greed.…. The collection is part reportage, part millennial love letter to lost youth, a native daughter’s attempt to sharpen her understanding of self against the whetstone of history and society…. What slowly emerges throughout the course of Gerard’s searching is a clear-eyed dismantling of the American dream: the idea that we are the individual architects of our fates, each with the power to will for ourselves the lives we want, the abundance we desire — wealth we trust will lead to true happiness.
Set in Florida as a kind of synecdoche for the country as a whole…. Both highly personal and socially poignant.
Sunshine State treats Florida… as a frame of mind, a psychoactive landscape through which to wander, poking what Gerard sees until she can make sense of it. Her essays live in the nonfiction borderland, testing the limits of truth and fact. This is what gives it its momentum and deftness…. Florida stands in for the American psyche, which is bleak and badly damaged… using facts alongside imagination and memory, of the country as it is, in order to understand how we got here, and where we’re going next.
Praise for Binary Star: “The particular genius of ‘Binary Star’ is that out of such grim material it constructs beauty. It’s like a novel-shaped poem about addiction, codependence and the relentlessness of the everyday, a kind of elegy of emptiness.
Gerard is able to strike a careful balance between the real-world issue of eating disorders and sheer, emotional punch…. Rhythmic, hallucinatory, yet vivid as crystal. Gerard has channeled her trials and tribulations into a work of heightened reality, one that sings to the lonely gravity of the human body.
Haunting… Radiates Beauty…. ‘Binary Star’ is imparted through the terse, arresting observations of its main character.... Gerard captures the beauty and scientific irony of damaged relationships and ephemeral heavenly lights. Just as with the stars, it is collapse that offers the most illumination.
Sparse and lean, Gerard’s writing hurtles forward with a momentum that seems bent on burning up, much like the stars her protagonist studies. It’s a novel that takes risks, both in style and subject matter.
Armed with a mesmerizing breadth of empathy and a rare, hi-res emotional intuition, Sarah Gerard’s essays lead us forward through decades of her observation of our world, along the way unpacking everything from religion to economics, desire to aspiration, grief to the very grit of what seems to make a person tick. It’s rare to find a voice you can come to believe in so quickly and completely, like an old friend’s, and one whose very spirit makes the world seem that much more bearable, more true. Here is something to believe in.
Gerard has written characters, in lyrical and deeply affecting prose, who are burned out and burning up what substance they have just to be known to each other.
Vanity Fair on Binary Star
[A] remarkable debut novel…. Partly novelistic, partly poetical, partly meditative, Binary Star is a beautiful inversion… where bodies stand not as replacements for planets or asteroids or gravitational pulls, but where stars and black holes and galaxies stand, instead, for bodies…. A bold work about taboos.
An intense, poetic, deeply original look at bodies, consumerism, and the way we strive to connect with one another, even through distance and dysfunction.
Like their narrator, these sentences seem conscious of the weight they accrue as they gather…. Counterbalancing its heaviness, the prose also achieves a certain ecstasy of lightness, of breathless possibility.
One of the breakout American independent books of the year. Gerard handles her subject matter—the cavernous nature of relationships, politics, the material and psychological condition of the body—with the care of an author who refuses to write down to her readers.
The distinct nature of Florida and its undeniable, magnetic weirdness shines through somewhere in each essay. Yet, despite its title, that enigma of a state isn’t the focus. Gerard takes a magnifying glass to powerful characters, herself included, and the underlying truths she unravels could apply to any number of Americans. The reader becomes invested in the characters’ lives, at times torn between empathy and disdain, but nonetheless needing to know what becomes of them.
Sunshine State… is to fall into something like a trance. Gerard’s writing transports completely, thanks both to the eerie, atmospheric prose itself and to her thorough investigative journalism; each essay carries the reader to a seemingly foreign world…. There are cogent analyses of legislation, activists, and aesthetics, always grounded by Gerard’s connection to her subjects, always led by her distinct voice…. In Gerard’s capable hands Florida becomes not so much a geographical state but a state of being, something which can leave an indelible mark on those who call it home.
Gerard’s memoiristic essays, compelling and confessional, are welcome breaks from the fascinating, densely researched narrative nonfiction that drives the majority of her book. Focusing on a single state, Gerard’s scope is nonetheless quite large, and her sensitive, sympathetic writer’s sensitivity for her subjects and interviewees is apparent.
One of the themes of ‘Sunshine State,’ Sarah Gerard’s striking book of essays, is how Florida can unmoor you and make you reach for shoddy, off-the-shelf solutions to your psychic unease…. The first essay is a knockout, a lurid red heart wrapped in barbed wire.... This essay draws blood.
Gerard’s native Florida links the assembled eight essays, but the setting is just that - a backdrop against which Gerard exercises an admirable impulse for experimentation. ‘BFF’ is an extremely intimate autopsy of a childhood friendship. ‘The Mayor of Williams Park’ is an immersive profile told in the quasi-detached first person, of G.W. Rolle, a minister who serves free weekend lunch meals.
Using the state as a means to write about themes like identity, intimacy, and family, Gerard weaves a beautifully complex book that tackles some of the country’s most urgent issues.
Sunshine State is a brutal and honest account of trying to grow up and find yourself when the past is always ready to drag you back under…. It is a book that left me gratefully gutted. Read it.
Gerard’s prose is unlabored, flatly observational, and the interwoven mini stories are at once tender and cold, exhilarating and regrettable—each undermining the one that precedes it.
Gerard’s writing has been described as ‘unflinching,’ but perhaps the better terms are ‘generous’ and ‘patient.’ Her patience is what gets her close enough to her subjects that she can round them out, exhibit their complexities, and her generosity is what keeps her from mocking them…. [The essays] work together to subvert the most common tropes about Florida’s antic madness. Instead they focus on humanizing the state’s inhabitants—inhabitants with hopes and dreams, who cope with systemic and visceral issues… who would ordinarily be flattened into condescending headlines.
It takes someone with orange juice in their veins and alligators in their heart to truly bring the lessons of a place as complex as Florida to bear… [
Sunshine State] dissects what Florida means to the United States with a nuance and complexity only someone who has lived in it—and, just as importantly, moved away from itcan provide…. Listing the home’s elevation, an accurate certificate is requisite to assessing the home’s risk of flood damage or, in the case of Florida, its chances of surviving into the next few decades…. Florida is the nation’s elevation certificate; consider Gerard our realtor.
Gerard demonstrates how the insanities and inanities of Florida serve as a microcosm of America, in all its fractured, complicated beauty and darkness.
[Gerard] inserts herself into her stories in both highly personal ways and as a second party observer, leaving the reader with a map of her internal landscape as well as a Floridian topography. The combined effect is a bird’s eye view of the state at large. In Gerard’s work, the body is made of star stuff. The personal is political.
The author goes home in Gerard’s thorough, personal, and well-researched collection of essays on Florida, its inhabitants, and the ways they prey upon each another.
The Millions The Millions
Sunshine State is a sort of memoir, its essays ranging widely in style and degree of intimacy…. [The title essay] is a haunting story… that Gerard tells with insight and skill… the first essay, ‘BFF,’ a simmering prose poem…. Florida is often played for laughs in literature, but Gerard knows it too well to do anything that simple. The shadows bring depth.
Eight carefully researched, beautifully patterned, and vividly written essays…. Emotion-rich scenes from Gerard’s life stand alongside straightforward descriptions of historical events unencumbered by editorializing…. This thematic ambiguity and avoidance of the pithy message are qualities—in addition to the effective use of autobiographical scenes—that some of Gerard’s essays share with those of Joan Didion… [and] turns the book into an Everlasting Gobstopper for thought. Also like Didion’s essays (when they first appeared), Gerard’s are records of a recent past that will soon enough feel like history.
Some essays… are strong, deeply researched journalism, distinguished by Gerard’s empathy for the subjects…. In [others], she deftly weaves together chapters from her family’s history with wider historical narratives…. In embracing a wide range of subject matter and styles, she creates not only a candid portrait of herself and her family, but unearths bigger truths about the lure and the hardships of life in Florida and the world.
These large-hearted, meticulous essays offer an uncanny x-ray of our national psyche, examining that American mess of saints and conmen, the peculiar, culpable innocence that American mess of saints and conmen, the peculiar, culpable innocence that confuses money and moral worth, charity and personal aggrandizement. Gerard’s prose is lacerating and compassionate at once, showing us both the grand beauty of our American dreams and the heartbreaking devastation they wreak.
Sunshine State gloriously gutted me—and by that I mean changed me forever as a reader. Using Florida as a lens and the body as a ticket to travel, Gerard weaves her astonishing prose through land and corporeal truth. Sunshine State reminds us of who we really are underneath the skin we live in and the ground we stand on—and mercifully, there is still beauty, in spite of everything.
[Gerard’s] prose sparkles in this series of essays but it is the people in
Sunshine State who capture and concern us. Vivid, sometimes disturbing, but always engaging, I loved this memoir of our southernmost state where an evolving people play, dance, struggle, and die beneath tropical skies.
Sarah Gerard writes with soulful clarity and keen intelligence about the cultish relationships and aspirational thinking that course through American life. This is a collection packed with bittersweet longing—for a life that’s fuller or wilder or wealthier, for a larger self that’s always out of reach.
With visceral wit and a literary toolkit full to the brim with new forms, Sarah Gerard’s first collection of essays makes the wild and untamed inner life of Florida bloom vividly within the reader’s mind.
Sunshine State is a strange, thoughtful, and deeply felt journey through a state whose beauty and peril speak to the contradictions of an entire nation.
I’ve never read anything like Sarah Gerard’s
Sunshine State’ and I’m worse off as a writer for it. Gerard manages to personalize the political and politicize the personal in ways that feel at once effortless and insanely ambitious….Some of the best essays I’ve read in the twenty-first century. Sunshine State should be mandatory reading for everyone living in Florida, the United States and the world. It’s an amazing creation.
Gerard masterfully explores the environmental, economic, and regional complexities of Florida alongside the eternal mysteries of identity, home, family, trauma, and desire. A stellar essay collection by a writer in possession of a talent as singular and furious as Florida itself.
Sarah Gerard’s sparkling essays-as-memoir is as multifaceted as Florida itself. Navigating intense friendships, her family’s unconventional faith, a flirtation with Amway, tattoos, drugs, boyfriends and a husband, a homeless shelter and a bird sanctuary run by a corrupt madman, Gerhard is wide-eyed yet fully present, blunt yet empathetic to not only the crazy swirl of characters that surround her, but to herself in formation. A tough, honest, beautiful work by one of our brightest and most unflinching young writers.
Brilliant, empathetic, fearless, and humane—in her search to better understand herself, her family, and the state that helped shape her, Sarah’s insight, heart, and diligence are boundless. The best book of essays I’ve read in years - a brilliant collection from a writer of incredible versatility and talent.
Sarah Gerard has that lingering gaze shared by investigative journalists and lovers. With equal measures of scrutiny and tenderness, she examines her feverish homeland and its denizens, herself and those she loves. No idealization can withstand this kind of scrutiny, and thank God, because I would not trade the hours I’ve spent in Gerard’s world for any more perfect version. One can’t hope for a more sharp-eyed, tender-hearted chronicler of herself and our busted world.
Sunshine State is a deeply intelligent, personal, and political collection of rich essays, with a clarity sharp as an icicle and ‘place’ as the connective tissue. The themes of class, identity politics, and loneliness emerge in ways that are simultaneously disturbing and comforting. The perfect book for the complex and heady humans in your life, AKA, for everyone.
Sunshine State, Gerard goes deep into the paradoxes of her birth state. I found these essays to be smart, kind and illuminating. This book left me improved spiritually.
This essay collection is unlike any other I’ve encountered—stylistically dazzling without sacrificing a reporter’s precision, relentlessly moving without doling a sentimentalist’s artificial sugar, this is a collection of so many Floridas only a native could know. At a time when America feels so broken, Gerard allowed me to love it again somehow.
Sunshine State probes at the fringes of society, the intersection of right and wrong, the private core of our fundamental self-definitions. Sarah’s compassionate and boundlessly curious essay collection drives always toward truth, even when that truth is hard to bear. An unforgettable book, by a writer with a powerful, essential American voice.
Sarah Gerard brings an immersion journalist’s acuity and shrewdness to essays made urgent by a native daughter’s alloy of sympathy and rage. Capacious and captivating,
Sunshine State gets Florida right—and dead to rights—while breathing fresh life into the shoe-leather memoir.
I could read Sarah Gerard all day. She is a seeker and a seer, a critic and an empath, an intellectual and a poet. This book isn’t just about Florida; it’s about America. It’s about humanity.
Sarah Gerard’s writing is so precise, so deft, so marvelously human, so deeply connected to the people around her, that if I were to have my choice of executioners, I’d call on her.
For those who fear Florida is comprised primarily of gators and the insane, this book may seem like it was written for you. In many ways, it surely was, giving life and voice to a world which has previously not held much acreage in your mind. But at its core,
Sunshine State is a love letter to the wild and fascinating land itself, and the cast of characters who call it home.
Intensely personal and intricately researched, Sarah Gerard’s essays break ground with the work of Eula Biss, Maggie Nelson, Joan Didion. Gerard is provocative and an excellent sleuth. She digs for the secret, unshakeable truths we are busy turning away from—yet she is never sensational, never sentimental. Her mind is tough but she reaches with love. She asks that we reach with her—with her resilience, her prodigious strength. This book is a gift to all of us.”
The author goes home in Gerard’s thorough, personal, and well-researched collection of essays on Florida, its inhabitants, and the ways they prey upon each another.
Writer Gerard (Binary Star) was born and raised in the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater metropolitan area, and as a teenager experimented in all the sex, drugs, techno, and nu metal music available in the mid-to-late 1980s and 1990s. These essays offer recollections of her escapades and renderings on homelessness and bird sanctuaries. "Mother-Father God" details her parents' involvement in the Unity Church and her mother's work with local police; "Going Diamond" describes her father's career with Amway and the company's philosophy to dream big, which Gerard acted upon during a recent visit to tour million dollar homes; "The Mayor of Williams Park" tells of the author's acquaintance with a person named G.W., who serves Saturday morning breakfast to the homeless in St. Petersburg. The titular "Sunshine State" outlines her volunteer work at the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary and details efforts to save injured seabirds. While geographically focused on the west-central coast of Florida, Gerard's essays are not characteristic of the often-published writings on Florida as a touristy hiding place for misfits. The author genuinely writes for herself as much as for the discovery of the reader. VERDICT Writers and regional Florida readers will value this collection.—Joyce Sparrow, Kenneth City, FL
Decidedly odd characters emerge in eight autobiographical essays.Combining journalism and memoir, Gerard (Binary Star, 2015, etc.), a novelist, essayist, and columnist for the online journal Hazlitt, brings a sharp eye to recollections of growing up on Florida's Gulf Coast. Notable for sharply drawn portraits, her essays depict a host of unusual, eccentric men and women. In "Mother-Father God," the author introduces the earnest spiritual leader of the Unity-Clearwater congregation, a New Thought church, where, for more than a decade, her parents were devoted members. Church activities were omnipresent in her life, leading her to wonder, as an adult, why her parents joined, why they left, and how that early connection to the church shaped her. Gerard juxtaposes her parents' biographies with a history of the New Thought movement, particularly Mary Baker Eddy's Christian Science, that arose in late-19th-century America. Like those early followers, the author's parents found in Unity-Clearwater "positive, reaffirming messages," especially the message that "people are not punished for their sins but punished by their sins." Gerard admits that she has been drawn to the church's teaching that individuals create potential in the world by first believing in it. Maybe this ongoing belief in potential attracted her parents to become distributors for Amway, a sketchy marketing corporation accused of being a pyramid scheme. Their involvement, no less enthusiastic than in the church, is the subject of the partly fictionalized essay "Going Diamond," featuring a portrait of Amway's co-founder Richard DeVos, whose son is the husband of the current nominee for Secretary of Education. Another essay details, somewhat repetitively, the author's high school years, marked by drugs, alcohol, sex, and, surprisingly, classical singing lessons. The title essay, although it also would have benefited from further editing, vividly portrays the bizarre director of the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, where Gerard visited as a child and returned as a volunteer to conduct research. "The Mayor of Williams Park" offers an engaging profile of an unlikely activist working to ameliorate homelessness. An intimate journey reveals a Florida few visitors would ever discover.