Former child star Lilly Lorraine spent most of her life ignoring and mocking her only daughter Emmy James, a young woman who has grown up to doubt her ability both to love and be loved — unconditionally. As a young woman, EJ leaves her small Oregon town with a big, burdensome secret on her back, traveling across the country in a silver Airstream trailer and avoiding the consequences of a choice she made six years earlier. It’s only with the appearance of Jess, an “angel” who magically drops into her life at a gas station, that she begins to heal. The angel with her own secret convinces EJ it’s time to return home and deal with news brought to her by a childhood friend — and begin to understand, and possibly forgive, her estranged mother.
Lani Diane Rich’s A Little Ray of Sunshine is designed around EJ’s narrative voice, but it’s really the story of friendships lost and found, relationships restored, and that big-time, cheesy and unconditional familial love. And I love books like this! I’m huge on family dynamics — examining the interplay between parents and children, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives. A Little Ray of Sunshine is the perfect opportunity to drop in and watch all of these issues play out carefully.
Along with the interplay between all of the complicated, fully-developed characters, we get a pretty strong glimpse into the world of Lilly Lorraine, the America’s one-time childhood sweetheart (a la Shirley Temple). Each chapter of the novel is preceded by a letter, quote or other bit of information from Lilly (and, later, from EJ) explaining some tidbit of her relationship with her daughter or herself. I loved these openings — they provided so much insight into why Lilly could have possibly been so unfeeling to EJ growing up. It didn’t justify it, but it did help make both EJ and I understand.
Of course, we have to take into account that our narrator was a vulnerable child when Lilly first began abandoning her for husbands three, four, five, six . . . and so on. But I’m willing to side with EJ and say that while her mother may have, at one point, had decent intentions of raising her child, she definitely failed her by simply not being there. But Lilly’s character in the present day was full of enough surprises to keep me turning the pages quickly. And watching her reconnect with Danny, the man she has long considered to be like a father, was pretty moving.
There were huge unanswered questions looming over most of the novel, and I’m happy to say Rich effectively resolved the loose ends by the conclusion. Full of humorous scenes and colorful imagery, it was hard to put this one down. I loved watching EJ reconcile with the people who used to love her most in the entire world — and still do.
My only gripe? Some of the conversation seemed stunted and unnatural — especially when the characters were discussing the painful, hard truths of the past. The “emotional” scenes seemed particularly . . . melodramatic? But I tried to bear in mind that these talks, especially between Lilly and EJ, were a lifetime in the making.
4 out of 5!