A Review of Sarah Gerard's “Sunshine State”

“Sunshine State” is a collection of essays, part-memoir, part-investigative journalism, that tells the story of loneliness and the misguided ways people attempt to treat it. Gerard and those around her resort to drugs, religion, get-rich schemes, and hoarding—out of desperation for connection, but also out of a sadistic curiosity. That curiosity is one we all share, if not in our own lives, then in our desire to keep turning the pages.

Florida poisons and propels the characters we meet—Gerard’s young friends and boyfriends, her parents and grandparents, as well as a couple of tortured local heroes (perhaps better described as villains we would get along with). Her parents do nothing if not obsessively, joining and then helping lead a cult-like (but benign) religion, and enthusiastically participating in the pyramid scheme, Amway, for years. Gerard is misguided in her search for fulfillment as well—taking drugs at parties whether she’s in the mood or not, getting a friendship tattoo with a someone she no longer trusts, and faking romances with boys she’s not much enamored with. In the Sunshine State the American Dream is alive and well—every character is hot on the trail of money, meaning, or happiness—though these are never quite realized.

Gerard’s passivity is frustrating but familiar to anyone who has survived their adolescence. We are proud to watch her stumble, develop, and assert her agency. When she graduates from high school, she is the one to throw the party. Her parents agree to spend the night at a hotel, so that she can host it at their house. Still what stands out most to the reader is that the end of her evening and the following morning is spent cleaning up another party-goer’s vomit. Later, in a dark but triumphant moment, she stops sex with a guy she doesn’t want to have sex with. And yet, years later, she willingly visits his tattoo parlor to have him ink over one regrettable tattoo with another. “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.

Scam artists, addicts, punk-kids—the kind your parents would have been quick to label ‘Bad Influences’—these are the ones that attracted young Gerard and who continue to attract the adult Gerard (the writer). Florida is the state where lightning strikes the most and this feels fitting after living in her world. “There were plenty of lakes teeming with alligators,” she reminds us. What she writes about her childhood best friend, she could be writing to the entire state: “You haunt me everyday.” It is a book that left me gratefully gutted. Read it.

Publisher: Harper Perennial
384 pages
Publication Date: April 11, 2017

This review originally appeared in the Money issue. Find more inspiring stories from the Money issue here or read How Bitcoin Is Helping Women in Emerging Markets.