The New York Times bestselling author of Falling presents a warm, wise, and wonderfully vivid novel about a mother who asks her three estranged daughters to come home to help her end her life.
Ronni Sunshine left London for Hollywood to become a beautiful, charismatic star of the silver screen. But at home, she was a narcissistic, disinterested mother who alienated her three daughters.
As soon as possible, tomboy Nell fled her mother’s overbearing presence to work on a farm and find her own way in the world as a single mother. The target of her mother’s criticism, Meredith never felt good enough, thin enough, pretty enough. Her life took her to London—and into the arms of a man whom she may not even love. And Lizzy, the youngest, more like Ronni than any of them, seemed to have it easy, using her drive and ambition to build a culinary career to rival her mother’s fame, while her marriage crumbled around her.
But now the Sunshine sisters are together again, called home by Ronni, who has learned that she has a serious disease and needs her daughters to fulfill her final wishes. And though Nell, Meredith, and Lizzy have never been close, their mother’s illness draws them together to confront the old jealousies and secret fears that have threatened to tear these sisters apart. As they face the loss of their mother, they will discover if blood might be thicker than water after all...
|Publisher:||Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 5.90(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
A former journalist in the UK and a graduate of the International Culinary Center in New York, Jane Green has written many novels (including Jemima J, The Beach House, and, most recently, Falling), most of which have been New York Times bestsellers, and one cookbook, Good Taste. Her novels are published in more than twenty-five languages, and she has over ten million books in print worldwide. She lives in Westport, Connecticut, with her husband and a small army of children and animals.
Date of Birth:May 31, 1968
Place of Birth:London, England
Education:"Managed to drop out of Fine Art Degree at University."
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof.***
Copyright © 2017 Jane Green
A Few Weeks Ago
All those years when Ronni thought she was sick, all those years convinced that every mole was melanoma, every cough was lung cancer, every case of heartburn was an oncoming heart attack, after all those years, when the gods finally stopped taking care of her she wasn’t scared.
What a pity, she thought after the doctor first diagnosed her. Then, when she refused to believe it, after the second, and the third, agreed, she thought again, what a pity I wasted all those years worrying about the worst. Somehow now that the worst was upon her, it was peaceful, calming, as if this was what she had always been waiting for. Now that it was here, it wasn’t scary at all.
She had gotten her life in order. There were many, many amends she wasn’t able to make, would never be able to make. If she hadn’t completely healed her relationship with her daughters, at least she had brought them back together; at least they would now have each other.
Ronni stirs in bed and blinks at the sunlight pouring in through the window, dust circling in the glow. There is a thick layer of dust on the top of the chest of drawers at the bottom of her bed. A few months ago she would have been furious, calling for Lily, the housekeeper, to come and clean. It doesn’t matter anymore.
Her legs don’t work anymore, and it’s getting increasingly hard to hold her head up. The choking when she ate made it simpler not to eat, and she no longer has the energy for the liquid smoothies Lizzy has been making. She turns her head slightly to see a full smoothie Lizzy brought up earlier today, packed with spinach for iron, almond butter for protein, coconut milk because Lizzy swears coconut is the ultimate cure-all for everything these days.
Not for Ronni. There is no cure for Ronni, no anti-inflammatory that will stop the burning and muscle jumping, not enough iron, minerals, or vitamins in the world that will bring sensation back to her body, allow her to lead a life comparable to the one she has led all these years.
It has been a good life, she thinks. Sixty-five years. She would have wanted longer, and before this disease took hold of her body, she passed for much younger, presumed she would go on forever. She reaches for the handheld mirror she keeps on the bedcovers, aware that she is slowly losing this hand as well. Slowly she holds it up, just for a few seconds, to examine her face. She hasn’t had Botox for over a year. Nor fillers, nor any of the treatments that kept her looking young and firm. She had her eyes done in her forties, but now they are sunken in what is left of her face, her cheeks gaunt, her skin graying. She stares, fascinated at how different she looks, at what she has become.
It is not the way she would have chosen to go, but nor would Ronni ever have wanted to grow old. The makeup, the treatments, the wigs, the working out, the gracious, charming persona she was known for, all kept her looking young, even if she didn’t get the acting parts she once got.
Three years ago she was offered the part of a grandmother in an edgy new series on HBO. She turned it down, horrified. They told her she would be a “glamorous granny”; they wanted to portray aging in a sexy, vibrant way. Ronni flounced out of the office, not saying a word, her displeasure clear. The show went on to win numerous awards. The grandmother was played by Betty White. Ronni refused to watch until last year, when season two won every award it was possible to win, then she binge-watched it. Everyone else who had seen it raved, saw instantly why it was such a hit—the clever dialogue; the edgy, astute observations; the horrible, self-absorbed, selfish characters you wanted to hate but couldn’t help but love because they were so vulnerable, their hearts so needy, and bleeding, and real. Ronni did not see any of that. What Ronni saw was a woman much older than her playing a role they had offered to her. Which meant they saw her as the same age, the same type. And she was devastated.
She booked a Thermage treatment for the next day, and a chemical peel. She made an appointment with her plastic surgeon in New York to discuss a face-lift. How dare they see her as perfect for the part of the old lady. How dare they see her as an old lady. Wasn’t sixty the new forty? She would reverse time, would ensure she continued to play evil mothers-in-law rather than eccentric elderly ladies.
The day of the appointment, she had a bad dizzy spell and spent the day in bed. She never got around to another appointment. None of which matters, she thinks now. All those years of beauty, of a wonderful figure, and all I could think was that I was never pretty enough, never slim enough, never quite good enough. What I would give to have those years back, to appreciate them more, to appreciate the life I had while I was living it.
All those years when I could have been a better wife, a better mother, a better friend. She sighs. It’s too late now. She did the best she could. And now she is ready. It isn’t quite how she wanted to do it. She had a vision of looking beautiful again, of being dressed, made-up, of falling back against the pillow with a mane of hair from one of her famous wigs.
She had envisaged her daughters sitting around the bed, perhaps clasping her hands, smiling beatifically as Bach played on the iPhone speaker, as she quietly swallowed the pills she has been stockpiling before drifting seamlessly into a sleep that would last forever.
Gathering the pills was challenging. Her housekeeper removed the bottles of OxyContin and kept them downstairs. She learned to ask visitors to bring her the pills, pretending to take them, or announcing she would take them later, before hiding them away with her growing mound.
She had hoped there would be a camera in the corner, capturing this final scene in a documentary that would be made about her life, as she drifted from this one into the next.
She has left plans for her funeral, which will also be filmed. The biggest stars of stage and screen will be speaking, certainly. She has left instructions as to who she wants to eulogize her and what poems they might read. She has imagined the obituaries, the retrospectives, the huge picture of her on the screen at the Oscars, the sadness and tears from all who have known her, or loved her, or admired her movies for years.
The first part of the plan has not come together. None of her daughters will cooperate. Nell won’t speak about it, other than to say there is absolutely no way she will help her mother take her own life, then have to live with that on her conscience for the rest of hers. It is unconscionable that she would ask, says Nell. Meredith keeps bursting into tears. And Lizzy, Lizzy who is most like her, Lizzy, her darling baby girl, has refused to believe that there isn’t something that can be done. How typical of Lizzy, to believe that sheer force of will can make anything happen, including miracles.
Lizzy, who has been making her liquid smoothies packed with nutrition, who is researching cutting-edge stem cell treatments, certain that there will soon be a cure. Her daughters have demanded more time. Give them six months, they say, to try to find something that will help. They will not let her go now.
But Ronni has reached the end. With her one good hand she reaches under the pillow where she has been quietly storing the pills.
She has enough now, to ensure she won’t wake up, throw up, swim back to consciousness. There is a small wave of regret that she isn’t going the way she had planned, surrounded by family, drifting off in a wave of forgiveness and love, but they will not let her go.
And it is time to go.
The director jumps out of his chair and strides over to Ronni Sunshine, clasping her arms as he gives her an extravagantly European air kiss, his lips pursing on either side of her perfectly made-up face as he kisses once, twice, three times.
“Darling! You look more beautiful than ever!” Andras Marko’s Eastern European accent now has an American twang, picked up in Hollywood over the last ten years. He steps back, admiring her short, tight skirt and beautifully fitted red jacket with large shoulder pads. Her hair is immaculately flicked, the black eyeliner on her striking green eyes slanting up ever so slightly at the corners, her lips full, glistening with red lip gloss, and pouty, a small smile playing on them, as her face fills with a flush of pleasure at the compliment.
“Darling! It’s good to see you!” Once upon a time, he had a crush on her. She knew this, used it to her advantage, even though nothing had ever happened, for she was so young, barely out of her teens; he couldn’t have taken advantage of her in that way. Instead, he was sweet to her, took her under his wing. If anyone dared to flirt with her, or try to take advantage, he was the first to jump in and set them straight.
“It’s better to see you.” He smiles. “You have grown into your beauty.”
“Thank you, Pappy.”
The people who loved Andras called him Pappy. Ronni made sure she called him that from the beginning. It made him feel loved, helped him take even better care of her.
Her voice is still the throaty purr that she developed for her first film role, at eighteen, a voice that has subsequently become her trademark. That first film role, as Michael Caine’s fifth love interest, led to a series of B-movie roles, which led to her moving to Hollywood two years later.
Andras Marko directed the first movie she made after landing in her little studio bungalow in Silver Lake. He was relatively new to the game back then, but over the years produced a number of huge hits. Now he is a hot Hollywood director, with a penchant for dark, exotic actresses in their twenties.
“It’s been a long time,” says Andras, admiring her from head to toe. “What is it, ten years? Twelve, since we made that movie?”
Ronni tips her head back with a peal of laughter. “No, darling! It’s only been six or seven years. Time in Hollywood just feels longer.”
She has to say that. She is thirty now, but her résumé says twenty-six. Andras would know she is not twenty-six, knew her age when they made that movie together all those years ago, but he is willing to play the game they both know they are expected to play.
“And you’re married now! With babies! I can’t believe how things change in such a short time.”
There is a quick flicker of discontent in Ronni’s eyes. It’s not that she doesn’t like being married, doesn’t appreciate her children, but this role is not the role of a young mother, but an ingénue. Reminding Andras of her role outside of the movie set is not something she wants to do.
“Come, come.” He takes her hand, dipping his head with a smile as he leads her through the people who have been watching her screen test, all of whom applaud as she passes. A warm glow seeps through her. This film could be huge. The rumor is that Robert Redford is up for the part. Winning this role would catapult her onto the A-list in a way she has always dreamed. “Tell me,” he says. “Tell me about the babies.”
“The babies are adorable,” she says, even though Nell is seven and Meredith is three. “How are your children? How old are they now? And Diana? Is she well?”
“Pfft.” He waves with his free hand, as they leave the room and head across the lot to his office. “They are all well. All driving me crazy! Come! Come! There is much we have to talk about!”
He turns to her, his eyes crinkling as he laughs, Ronni laughing with him, her excitement threatening to bubble up and spill out. It looks like she’s done it! She’s really, really done it! This time it looks like she’s landed the role of her dreams.
They walk into his office, Andras gesturing her to sit down. “Your test was wonderful,” he says then, smiling a beneficent smile at her. “You have grown and matured as an actress, but you still have the glow of youth. I think you would be perfect for the role of Jacqueline. What do you think? Are you ready to take on something like this?”
“Really?” Ronni can hardly sit still, wriggling with delight as she looks into his eyes. “Are you saying I’ve got the part?”
“Do you want the part?”
“Oh, Pappy! This is the part I’ve been dreaming of all my life! This is wonderful!”
“So you do want the part?” He is smiling at her with a smile she doesn’t recognize from all those years ago, a smile she wouldn’t have been able to read, even if she weren’t wriggling with an excitement that failed to prepare her for what was about to happen.
“If you really want the part,” he says, leaning back on the sofa, his voice low as he moves his legs apart, “all you have to do is be nice to me. Be very nice to me.”
Usually, a massage is enough to calm Ronni down. The studio sends a masseuse once a week to the house. Usually it’s on a Thursday, but Ronni calls her agent as soon as she gets home, and requests—no, demands—the masseuse come today. She drove home gritting her teeth, replaying her audition over and over.
Be nice to me. She knows, as every young actress in Hollywood knows, what that particular euphemism means. She has never done it, and she will never do it. Andras Marko can go fuck himself.
Oh, but she would have been perfect for the role. And she was certain she had gotten it. The screen test went as well as any screen test in her career. She could see the people in the room rapt as they watched her. She was naïve, and innocent, and inhabiting the character so well, she forgot that she was Ronni Sunshine, actress and B-movie star, and thought she was a young mother whose daughter had been kidnapped. She had them. When it ended, there was that split second where she blinked, had to come back to herself, and she looked around that room, at the faces of all those people sitting in there, and she knew she had them. They believed her too.
That sleazeball Andras. When had he become a sleazeball? How had that sweet, nurturing man she worked with all those years ago become the gross, presumptuous, sleazy director who spread his legs for her today and expected her to acquiesce? Had fame and fortune corrupted him that much? Well. Clearly, it had. Ronni could name ten actresses in ten seconds who’d built their careers on the casting couch. She had never been one of them. She had never needed to be one of them.
She wasn’t about to start now. No matter how badly she wanted the part.
As she drove home, she could feel the tension building in her neck and shoulders, a headache already starting to pound. Stress. Disappointment. Fury. How dare he.
A wave of nausea hit her as she walked into the house. She ran to the bathroom, disgusted with herself for throwing up, at having such an extreme reaction to what had just happened. But she was more disgusted with him. That was when she picked up the phone and called her agent.
The massage table is set up, as it always is, in her bedroom. As soon as she lies down, she’s hopeful she will get some relief. But as the masseuse kneads her back in the darkened room, all Ronni can think about is Andras, with a fury and an upset that no amount of stroking or kneading can dissolve.
Long, exasperated sighs keep coming from her mouth. She hears the front door close downstairs and the voice of the English nanny as she shepherds Nell and Meredith in from their afternoon activities.
A thump of small footsteps comes racing up the stairs. She hears “Mommy? Mommy? Mommy!” in ever-escalating shrieks until the door to her bedroom, her quiet, peaceful sanctuary, bursts open, and her two daughters tumbled in and clatter over to the table.
“Not now, girls,” she snaps, her words harsher than intended, her head turned to the side as the masseuse pauses. “Mommy is busy. Go and find Iris.”
“But I want to show you what I made in school today.” Nell, the eldest, stands her ground, proffering artwork, as Ronni feels a surge of fury. This is her time, for God’s sake. After the day she’s had, doesn’t she deserve some time to try to feel better?
“Not now!” she says, even more harshly than before. Meredith, who has been standing by the door, lets out a small whimper, and both the girls run out, to the safety of their German nanny, who is patiently waiting for them outside their mother’s bedroom. Ronni hears the woman reminding the children she told them not to disturb their mother. But they still have to learn that when the door is closed and the massage is under way, it is never a good time.
Things are not much better at breakfast the next morning. Ronni wakes slowly. The room is still ghostly quiet and pitch-black, thanks to her satin eye mask and wax ear plugs. Robert is traveling in the Midwest until later today, which is both liberating and irritating. She likes him home, likes him being by her side, likes him taking care of her.
The girls have gone to school. The only audible noise is the faint sound of the vacuum downstairs, which means Rosa is here.
Ronni lies for a while in bed, thinking about her audition. She can’t stop thinking about it. She woke up in the early hours, still angry, only managing to fall back to sleep at around four. And now it’s past nine, and still and all she can think about is the audition. The disgust has abated, leaving her second-guessing herself. This is a huge part, after all. Having it would propel her to superstar status. Marilyn Monroe did it all the time, was renowned for sleeping with those on high to get a part. And that was Marilyn Monroe! Who does Ronni Sunshine think she is, not doing the same thing?
But I’m married, she tells herself. I am a mother. It’s inconceivable that I would do such a thing.
She lies in bed, staring into space, the pink satin eye mask pushed up to the top of her head. This part! This movie! They could undoubtedly push her up there to the one thing she has always craved, proper movie star status. This role could change her life.
And all she had to do was . . . what? She isn’t sure. A blow job might have sufficed. Wasn’t that what his spread legs meant? And a blow job isn’t exactly infidelity, is it? If she were to give Andras a blow job—she shudders in disgust at the thought—but if she were to do it, just once, just to get the job, she could still claim to be faithful. It wouldn’t be the lowest of the low, surely.
But she can’t. Surely she can’t. Can she? She always knew she was his type, but back then he wasn’t famous enough to have dared make the move. Or perhaps she was too young. Either way, he has always cast women in his movies who look just like her: dark, petite, exotic.
Ronni reaches over to her nightstand for a handheld pearl mirror and brings it a few inches in front of her face, staring at herself.
The product of a Swedish mother and an Anglo-Jewish father, even first thing in the morning (for her), Ronni is exotic. She is exactly Andras’s type. Dark skinned like her father, petite, with her mother’s large green eyes that have the tiniest of slants, and thick blond hair, she has been destined for stardom from the moment she was born. Not the B-movie stardom she has enjoyed for the last twelve years—the kind of stardom where she will sometimes get better tables in restaurants and asked for autographs should she encounter people who may have seen her movies—but the real Hollywood superstar stardom. The kind of stardom that can generate the parting of the Red Sea.
Adoring parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles watched as she performed for them as a child, her green eyes sparkling as she sang, dipped, and twirled on a wooden box her father had made for her as an impromptu stage. They kept it behind the sofa in the living room of their pretty stucco Georgian house just off Downshire Hill in London’s leafy Hampstead.
At eighteen she got her first film part. At twenty she moved to Hollywood. At twenty-one she had an affair with Warren Beatty, which, although not entirely unusual for a beautiful young actress in Hollywood at that time, nevertheless resulted in her being featured in all the gossip columns. At twenty-two she landed the first in a number of leading roles in B movies. At twenty-three, she unexpectedly discovered she was pregnant, courtesy of a passionate but relatively new relationship with Robert Sunshine, who was beginning to make a name for himself in New York with commercial real estate deals.
He was developing a shopping mall in Los Angeles and traveled there frequently. Ronni, still climbing her way up the movie ladder, had accepted a booking to be a hostess at one of Robert’s cocktail parties. Her role was to greet and charm.
By the end of the night, it was clear that Robert was the most charmed of all. The affair went from there, and what with the pregnancy, she married him and took his name, as the gossip columnists went wild. Ronni Sunshine! Didn’t it sound like she was heading for the top? They moved into a rambling wooden contemporary nestled in Laurel Canyon that felt like a magical tree house.
Ronni hated being pregnant, felt like a giant moose. Her figure, which she had always worked so hard to maintain as a young actress embarking on a career in which looks were paramount, was transformed into something unrecognizable.
She snapped back within three months of her daughter’s birth, and soon won the part of a young housewife in a gothic horror movie that was set to be a huge hit, but didn’t do as well as anyone hoped. Most of all, Ronni.
She continued working. She was one of the lucky ones, she supposed, although it didn’t feel like it. Being a steadily working actress, occasionally being recognized, wasn’t enough. It was never enough.
The stardom she craved was always just out of her reach. Her pregnancies weren’t planned, either of them. But she believed having a successful husband, a good-looking, glamorous husband, would surely help propel her further.
Now, finally, she has a real shot at something big. A role that will put her in the major leagues. And all it will take to get it is a blow job. Perhaps she could call Andras today and ask to meet with him again, apologize for storming out in disgust. She could tell him it was her time of the month. She’ll think of something.
She thinks about him sitting on the sofa, his legs spread, an eyebrow raised, and a wave of nausea hits her just as there is a knock on the door and Rosa comes in without waiting for her to answer. Rosa does this all the time, oversteps her boundaries. If she wasn’t such a good housekeeper, Ronni always says she would have got rid of her years ago, but the house is sparkling, the children love her, and the truth is, Ronni loves her too.
“You wanna get up?” Rosa stands in the doorway. “The man is here to fix the pool and I don’t know what to tell him. Mr. Robert says to talk to me, but I don’t know nothing. You wanna talk to him?” Rosa peers at Ronni and seems to suddenly notice she is a frightening shade of gray. “You okay?” she says.
Ronni jumps out of bed with her hand clapped over her mouth and races to the bathroom. She just about makes it to the toilet, where she heaves into the bowl, her stomach clenching in tight cramps, her body heaving and retching, even though nothing comes out except the tiniest bit of stomach bile.
She splashes her face with cold water, relieved the nausea has passed, then swishes water around her mouth. When she comes back into the bedroom, Rosa is still standing in the doorway, this time with her arms crossed and one eyebrow raised.
“I’m absolutely fine,” says Ronni. “Can you make sure my black dress is pressed? The one with the deep neckline? I’ll be going out in two hours.”
“Mommy! You look pretty!”
Ronni sails into the kitchen, twirling around her daughter in her long eggplant Halston dress, feeling feminine and beautiful as the little girl lets out a peal of laughter. Meredith laughs in delight as her mother circles around her, leaning down to flutter butterfly kisses along her little pudgy cheek.
“Where are you going?” asks Meredith.
“Just to school for Nell’s little poetry performance,” she says, shaking out the chiffon scarf and wrapping it around her shoulders. “Do I look alright?”
“You look like the movie star you are,” says Iris, a nanny who has lasted beyond six months, long enough to know what flattery will get her with her employer.
“What about the stomach?” Ronni turns to the side, showing the tiniest of swells. “Don’t I look enormous? Aren’t I huge?”
Iris blanches in horror. “You don’t look pregnant at all. But even if you did, pregnant women are beautiful. It’s what our bodies are made for. You must be proud to be pregnant, not ashamed.”
“I am not ashamed.” Ronni sinks into a chair at the table, unconsciously reaching out for a French fry from Meredith’s plate, only realizing the sin she is about to commit when the food is almost touching her lips. She puts it back on Meredith’s plate, wiping her fingers on the tablecloth. “I just don’t want people to know unless they have to know. There is still work I can do as long as I’m not showing.”
“What about the part in that movie? With the kidnapped child? Is that your next project?”
Ronni frowns. “It was offered to me,” she says, as the memory of Andras in his office flashes into her mind, “but I turned it down once I realized I was pregnant. The filming schedule didn’t work.”
The whole debacle was something she prefers not to think about. She went back to speak to Andras. She did what she needed to do to get the part, determined to forever put it out of her mind as soon as it was over, determined that no one would ever find out, no one would ever need to know how low she had sunk for the sake of her career. She told Andras that she was married, and happy, that this was a one-off, and he agreed, even as he was unzipping his pants for the blow job she reluctantly gave him.
She had no idea she was pregnant at the time. They were due to start filming in six months. She would be eight months pregnant. She hadn’t even signed the contract yet when she realized her condition. She met with the studio and asked for filming to be pushed back by three months. They said they would consider it, but that afternoon a messenger showed up on the doorstep with a letter. Their offer had been rescinded. They wished her lots of luck with her pregnancy and her career.
“There will be lots more, yes?” says Iris. Ronni says nothing. The last thing she needs is to be comforted by the nanny.
“Ronni?” Robert comes into the kitchen, going straight over to Meredith and covering her with kisses as she squeals and laughs. He reaches over her shoulder to take a handful of French fries and pop them in his mouth before looking over at Ronni.
“You look very dressed. Are you sure that’s the appropriate attire for a second grade class party?”
Ronni stares at him. She chose well, she thinks. He is the perfect complement to her, with his towering height and long legs, his dark hair and handsome, preppy looks. She chose well even though they seem to be drifting apart, even though there are times she feels they are speaking to each other from different planets, have lost what little they had in common in the first place. “Do you even know me? How do you think I’m supposed to dress? In Jordache jeans and Bass Weejuns? Or clogs? I’m not a suburban housewife. I’m an actress. And most of the parents at the school are in the industry, which means this isn’t about a class party, it’s about work.”
“You know they’ll all be in jeans and sneakers, and it’s a new school for us. Are you sure you don’t want to just blend in?” He looks at her face before backtracking. “If you feel good in that, who am I to tell you differently.”
Ronni stares at him before turning on her heel and walking out of the kitchen. All she needed to hear was that she looks beautiful. It doesn’t seem so much to ask. He is traveling, and distracted, and things are so different from when they first got together, when Robert treated her like his precious jewel, when he couldn’t get over how lucky he was that she had chosen him.
There is a murmur around the room of parents when Ronni walks in. She has made sure they are late; she always makes sure they are late. Not too much, just enough to be able to create a bit of a stir.
There are a couple of major stars who have their children in this elementary school, but none in Nell’s grade. She is the biggest celebrity here, even though her star does not appear to be rising just now.
Still, she has a face that is familiar to the people in the room. Even if you didn’t know her name, you would recognize her from a late-night movie you accidentally stumbled upon and paused to watch before flicking over until you hit The Tonight Show. She has a face you may have registered while driving past a giant poster on Sunset Boulevard. Not right in the front, but to the right. Not the lead, but in the picture.
The parents who aren’t sure murmur to the people they are standing with. Who is that? She must surely be someone, in that fabulously over-the-top dress for a classroom party. She looks like a movie star, so beautiful, with those gorgeous eyes. She’s definitely familiar, but they can’t quite place her.
“That’s Ronni Sunshine, the actress,” their friends murmur back. “You know, she was in . . . oh, what was she in? She’s been in so much. You’ve definitely seen her. Those gothic horror movies. What are they called? Oh, why can’t I think. Mommy brain! I can’t remember anything anymore.”
Ronni swishes through the crowd, casting gracious beatific smiles on the parents. Those she knows she stops to air kiss, always European-style, one on each side.
“You look beautiful!” everyone says, for indeed she does, pregnancy always suiting her, giving her a glow that radiates around the room. But the glow is real, quite aside from the pregnancy; she has always blossomed in the face of an effusive compliment.
The children are all huddled in a corner, excitedly whispering among themselves as the parents take their seats. Nell stands slightly off to the side, noticeable for her height—she is the tallest in the class, towering over everyone by at least four inches—and her stillness. The other children jig from side to side, unable to be still, waving to their parents, whirling around to catch the attention of a child on the other side of the group. Not Nell. Nell stands, staring into space, the only movement her lips, which, if you look very closely, are ever so slightly mouthing the words of her poem as she ensures she knows it by heart, reciting it over and over again.
The teacher gets up. Ronni and Robert settle in the front row. From there Ronni bestows her most radiant smile on the young Miss Ellison, who confessed, the first time they met at the beginning of the year, that she was an enormous fan and had seen all her movies. She even asked if she—could she—if she might—would it be possible, and please don’t think this inappropriate, but might Ronni autograph a black-and-white photograph of herself that Miss Ellison had bought some time ago?
Miss Ellison keeps looking at Ronni, who smiles encouragingly as she steps up to the small riser.
“Welcome to all my second grade parents. We’re very excited to have you here to listen to our poetry readings. The children have all worked very hard and spent a huge amount of time practicing their poems.” She pauses for the parents to applaud, which they do, complete with a small amount of whooping from a couple of fathers in the back.
“First up, we have Nell Sunshine.” She turns to welcome Nell up onto the stage before leaning into the microphone again. “I just have to say that we are all incredibly blessed to have Nell’s mother here today, the wonderful actress Ronni Sunshine.” She extends an arm to Ronni, before clapping and casting a glance around the room to encourage the other parents to clap too. Which they do, although it is slightly more muted than before. This is Hollywood, after all. As Ronni rightly said to her husband, half of this room are directors or soundmen or caterers for the studios. It isn’t such a big deal for them, even though it seems to be for their child’s teacher.
Miss Ellison pauses, an idea striking her at that moment. “Ms. Sunshine, I wonder if we might ask you . . . I hope this isn’t too presumptuous, but I once heard you do the most wonderful recital of a poem on a radio show. I think it might have been by Roald Dahl? I’m just wondering whether you might still know it? Whether you might give us all an enormous treat by introducing today’s performance with that poem? If you remember it . . .”
She trails off, stepping back with a big smile, for Ronni has already stood up, gliding to the riser, lifting her long skirts to step up, taking the microphone with assumed humility and a smile that seems embarrassed, as the room applauds again.
“I’m so embarrassed,” Ronni starts, with a laugh and her signature throaty purr, and everyone sits up. They recognize that voice! That deep English accent! Now they know who she is!
“I didn’t expect to be performing today, and I haven’t rehearsed at all. Goodness, I’m not even sure I can remember that poem. It was Spike Milligan, I believe. Does this sound familiar?” She turns to Miss Ellison and recites the first line.
Miss Ellison nods dreamily, enthusiastically, as Ronni turns back to the microphone, playing up to the crowd, flinging her scarf off, delighting in performing in front of a live audience, delighting in the laughter she hears, in the rapt attention of a room full of people who all love her! They all seem to love her!
All eyes are on her. She is mesmerizing. No one notices the tall blond child standing next to the riser. They do not see her lips stop moving, nor the way she looks at the floor. Even if they had noticed before how nervous she was, they do not now realize that she no longer cares about stepping up to perform. No one, least of all Ronni, notices what is so clear on her face: that she knows she could never be as good as her mother, and that her day is now destroyed.
Reading Group Guide
Questions for Discussion
1. In her youth, Ronni makes choices to further her career, often at the expense of her family, but we also see moments of doubt and, later in her life, regret. Do you think her choices are entirely selfish? Do you empathize with any of her conflicts? What would you have done differently in her shoes?
2. It seems as though in her own way, Ronni has her daughters’ best interests at heart, even if this sometimes hurts them. For instance, she constantly criticizes Meredith’s weight but also worries about her daughter’s engagement. In what way is Ronni’s relationship with her daughters like or unlike many parent-child relationships? How do you think parents can strike a balance between communicating parental wisdom and allowing their children to make their own decisions? Does Ronni ultimately succeed in doing so?
3. Nell often remarks that Ronni is a much better grandmother than she was a mother. Why do you think this is?
4. Do you think Ronni’s last attempt to bring her daughters together makes up for her wrongdoings as a mother?
5. Do you empathize with Ronni’s wish to die on her own terms? If you were in her daughters’ place, would you comply with her wishes? Why or why not?
6. It’s often difficult to change old habits, but the Sunshine sisters discover that they must in order to truly connect as a family. Do you find that you revert back to certain habits or roles around your family members? Do you think it’s possible to change these habits and, consequently, your familial relationships?
7. Throughout the book, we see that Ronni and her daughters have difficulty opening up to one another and communicating their true feelings. Oftentimes, it leads to conflict, such as Nell and Lizzy’s argument over using the farm for the pop-up supper club, or the family’s disapproval of Meredith’s fiancé. Why do you think it is so difficult for them to be truly vulnerable and open around one another? Do you find you have the same difficulties with your family members?
8. In many ways, the sisters refuse to confront their own problems but are remarkably perceptive at parsing one another’s issues and even predicting romance. Do you sometimes experience the same disparity in perception in your own life? Have you ever had a similar situation with a family member or close friend?
9. In the present day, the Sunshine sisters are not truly content with their lives and choices. Why do you think this is? Do you think it has anything to do with their familial relationships?
10. While talking about relationships with Nell, Meredith says, “There’s a large part of me that thinks it’s better to have stability, and kindness, and friendship. Those are the things that make a relationship last, I think. Not chemistry.” Do you agree? How important were each of these factors in the sisters’ relationships? Do you think they would agree with Meredith’s statement in the end?
11. How is Greta the perfect match for Nell despite being a completely unexpected romantic partner?
12. Are you satisfied with the way things end for the Sunshine sisters?