The Sun in Your Eyes, the new novel by Chicago author Deborah Shapiro, felt familiar to me as soon as I picked it up. This was largely because of the cover photo, William Eggleston’s portrait of two young women lying on a faded floral couch. One of the women is disheveled and distraught; her calmer, prettier friend tries to comfort her.
After a few days, I realized it was because I’d seen it on the cover of another book, Sigrid Nunez’s 2006 novel The Last of Her Kind. (This is how I know about art history, by the way: through book covers.) But it’s also illustrative of a certain kind of college friendship. The girl in the blue bathrobe feels sad and unlovely, especially when she drinks. She’s drawn to the golden aura of the girl in the red dress, and alternately basks in that aura and feels her own light diminished by it; she loves her friend and resents her in equal measure. And the girl in red? Well, she’s totally fucked up, but she loves the girl in blue for being her eternal ally, even as she envies her steadiness. Their friendship lasts because, in a way, they each want to be the other person. And then after graduation it fades as they move into the world where friendship has to compete with careers and relationships and families.
This is the sort of friendship at the heart of The Sun in Your Eyes (though not as much in The Last of Her Kind). The sad girl in blue is Viv Feld, daughter of a suburban dermatologist and English teacher, and the glamorous girl in red is Lee Parrish, daughter of a model-turned-fashion designer and a singer-songwriter whom she can barely remember because he died in a car accident when he was still young enough to become a legend. They meet in college and become friends when Viv moves into Lee’s apartment during one magical, languorous summer. “Some sort of alchemy happened when they were together,” Lee thinks. “Everything was transformed.”
But when the story begins, Lee and Viv are a decade out of college, living on opposite coasts, and haven’t spoken in three years. Viv writes for a soap opera and is beginning to notice the cracks in her marriage to Andy who, in college, was the third roommate who enjoyed Viv’s company but pined for Lee. Lee is still drifting, still glamorous, working halfheartedly for her mother’s fashion line. The magic has worn off. Or so Viv tells herself. But when Lee invites her to lunch and then proposes they take a trip to upstate New York to look for some of her father’s old unreleased tapes, Viv immediately agrees.
“My doubts were never much of a match for my tendency to say yes to her. . . . She had this look—you have to. You have to or you’ll be missing out on a real adventure. I’m giving you this chance and all you have to do is take it.“
Naturally the two women hit the road and some shit happens that shakes up Viv’s boring life, and more shit happens that helps Lee come to terms with her parents and her past, and the two women realize that maybe everything they knew about themselves and each other is wrong. None of that is really important, or at least none of it feels as important as Viv and Lee’s friendship (is it still friendship, or is it now more like frenmity?) and their interactions with the various women they meet, particularly Marion, the woman who was with Lee’s father when he died; Patti, a journalist who appears to be a cross between Joan Didion and Ellen Willis; and Linda, Lee’s complicated and ruthlessly practical mother.
Maybe the lack of suspense is because the stakes of the quest are never quite clear. It’s very hard to describe music in words, and it’s very hard to capture raw charisma on the page, but these two things are at the heart of Lee’s obsession with her father. I imagined him as a harder-edged James Taylor or maybe a southern American Nick Drake, but then I read an essay by Shapiro where she wrote that she envisioned him as “a singer-songwriter of the 70s but with a kind of glam swagger and sensibility (echoes of David Bowie), who sounds sort of like Alex Chilton.” As for the charisma, neither Lee nor Viv ever experienced it firsthand, so they have to imagine it, too. As for Viv’s marriage, ¯_(ツ)_/¯.
The parts of The Sun in Your Eyes that linger most in my mind are the settings and moods that Shapiro creates: the golden, hazy college summer when Lee and Viv become friends and go to all-night parties and Viv feels the world opening up; summer in the Catskills, where Lee’s father recorded his lost last tapes; the peace of northern California, where Marion lives. They’re echoed in this excellent playlist she created for Largehearted Boy’s Book Notes column. (I dream that someday someone will actually care what I listen to when I write, too.) But maybe I feel that way because it’s summer now, and it reminds me of my own golden, hazy college summer when I was occasionally the girl in the blue bathrobe, but I had my own glamorous friends (whom I now no longer speak to) to pull me up and off onto more adventures. It’s difficult to evoke nostalgia without becoming maudlin or sentimental, but Shapiro pulls it off, enough to justify the bond that holds Viv and Lee so tightly.