"All I could think was ‘What do we do now?’" Or California Diaries #12

 I truly love this cover.  Image courtesy of Goodreads.

Many of you warned me about this one.  You said that it would be sad, and that I’d cry.  And you know what?  You were so right.  One of my favorite YA books ever is Bridge to Terabithia, but I’ve never reviewed it because it makes me cry so fucking hard just thinking about it, particularly the illustration of Jess’ dad picking him up and cradling him at the very end.  Seriously, I just wrote that line and started tearing up.  I’m a bit of a pussy, you know, crying over the least little thing. 

Anyway, this is the one where Sunny’s mom dies.  I knew it was coming, but that didn’t make it any easier.  It wasn’t ghostwritten, and so far has been probably the most well-written book of the CD series.  When you compare this book to Ann M.’s other book about parental death, With You and Without You, you can tell her writing style improved and matured in the fifteen years between those books. And, I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say this is probably my favorite Ann M. book ever. 

It’s kind of a hard book to review, particularly in the beginning, because Sunny’s thoughts are so scattered.  Though I think that makes the book even better.  That one second she’ll write about her mom, then the next write about her fight with Ducky, then the next about her messy hair, then the guilt she feels about thinking of anything except her mother.  It gives a feeling of Sunny’s real thought process and cracking up due to lack of sleep.

So it begins with a severe bout of insomnia on Sunny’s behalf.  Her mother has been home for a few weeks now and is becoming sicker by the day.  It’s well known that she has only a few days left.  Sunny decides to go to school, but can’t bring herself to attend any classes.  No one crosses her about this.  Kids are avoiding her and her brain has been “hijacked by mom.”  Aunt Morgan, Mrs. Winslow’s younger sister, has come in from Atlanta to help out, but she’s just annoying Sunny.  During her lucid moments, Mrs. Winslow keeps telling Sunny that she and her father have to take care of each other.  Sunny feels like she wants to call Ducky and apologize for her behavior at the concert, but doesn’t have the nerve.

The following day Sunny is awoken from a brief sleep by the worsening sounds of her mother’s pain.  It’s gone from moaning to howling.  Dawn notices that Sunny’s awake and they meet in the Winslow’s backyard for a little middle of the night visit.  Dawn starts to tell stories about Sunny’s mom, but Sunny can’t take it.  Dawn is very understanding of that (Well, that’s new.), but does try to encourage Sunny to make up with Ducky.  That afternoon brings a string of visitors, and it takes Sunny a couple times answering the door to realize that all these people are coming by to say their goodbyes, and just how close her mother is to death is suddenly crystal clear to her.  At this point, she’d still thought that her mother could continue to fight it.  She does make up with Ducky, and feels a lot better for having both him and Dawn to talk to.  Mrs. Winslow is given some pain medication even more powerful than morphine, and after taking it, she gets a good twenty minutes of being strong enough to talk.  Sunny goes in and they talk about when she, Sunny, was a baby.  Sunny wonders why she doesn’t have any brothers or sisters, and Mrs. Winslow said that she was never able to get pregnant again.  Sunny, astutely and sadly points out that the problem with a three person family, is that when one of them goes, there are only two left, and when one of them goes, one person is all alone.  Sunny tries to use this time to learn about who her mom was as a girl because she won’t be able to anymore.

The following day Mr. Winslow and Aunt Morgan tell Sunny she doesn’t need to go to school anymore, until after the funeral.  Sunny acts like she’s been going all along, which we know she’s been skipping more than going.  Sunny starts to appreciate Aunt Morgan when she hears that Morgan bought Mr. and Mrs. Winslow a bottle of vodka as a gift after Sunny was born.  The doctor comes to visit and doubts Mrs. Winslow will last through the day.  Dad and Morgan put Sunny on phone duty, telling people if they can come visit, and for how long, etc.  Sunny becomes obsessed with listing the people who’ve called, people who’ve sent food and people who’ve sent cards.  Every time her mind drifts from the task, she scolds herself.  At dinner, she asks Dad and Morgan how you say goodbye to someone forever, and they really don’t know either.  Morgan assures her that at the time, Sunny will find the words.  Sunny’s new obsession is listing every thing she thinks she needs to say to mom before she dies, and it’s heartbreaking, because you realize the list is growing and she has no where near that amount of time to tell her mother all these things.  During a lucid moment, Mrs. Winslow gives Sunny all of her old journals, which she started keeping when she was fourteen years old.  Sunny doesn’t want to start reading them. 

Mrs. Winslow made it through the day, and Sunny isn’t sure whether that’s really a triumph.  Carol spends the day with the family, taking care of phone calls, meals, etc. so that Sunny, Dad and Morgan can focus on Mrs. Winslow.  Sunny writes non-stop while waiting for it to happen, and kind of hates herself for the compulsive need to chronicle her own mother’s death.  Right before she died, Mrs. Winslow became very alert and told Sunny how much she loved her.  Sunny tried to remember everything she’d written down, but couldn’t.  Mrs. Winslow reiterates that Sunny and her father and Morgan need to take care of each other.  She slips into unconsciousness and the three of them sit by her bedside for the next two hours until she finally stops breathing.  And I’m CRYING sitting here writing about it. 

This isn’t happening. This isn’t happening. This isn’t happening.  It’s Sunny’s mantra the next morning.  She has no desire to see anyone and can’t explain why she’s feeling so angry.  Dawn comes over and asks Sunny why she seems more angry than sad, and Sunny gets furious and kicks her out of the house.  Carol goes to Sunny and explains that it’s fine that she’s angry and it’s normal.  Sunny doesn’t want to help plan the funeral, but agrees to choose the flower arrangements like her mother had requested that she do.  

The next day, Sunny actually managed to get an ounce of sleep and is feeling better.  She spends the whole day with Dawn, who she apologizes to.  Ducky comes by, and later Maggie and Amalia do as well.  All five of them hang out in Sunny’s room away from the rest of the crowd of people in the house.  Her four friends are her cocoon, protecting her from overbearing visitors and it makes her feel safe and happy.  Though she can’t help feeling a little jealous that Dawn has Carol to go home to.

The day of the funeral, Sunny actually doesn’t write about the funeral, she instead writes this sweet story about her mom.  When Sunny and Dawn were about eight years old one summer, they were bored, so her mom took them downtown with a sack full of pennies.  They placed the pennies on the ground, heads-up and hid themselves to watch people find them.  Most people just picked them up, one little girl made a wish and one elderly woman with alzheimers was thrilled.  It’s a pretty sweet little story about how Sunny’s mom was always trying to make people happy.

The following day, Sunny is back at school, but does write about her mother’s funeral in retrospect.  Her cocoon of friends was there for her, and Sunny asked Dawn to sit with her in the first pew.  The church was packed to standing room only, and there were throngs of people standing outside as well.  Sunny’s dad does the first eulogy and breaks down in the middle of it, and stands there sobbing in front of everyone for several minutes before he can go on.  After that, several more people stand to speak, but Sunny can’t cry, these stories don’t move her. Back at the house, she only feels “ungrateful and frustrated” at all their visitors.  So she holes herself up in her room with her cocoon of friends. 

Sunny starts a new journal, and insists she will never re-read the entries from the last few days.  Sunny decides to focus on school, so she isn’t left behind in eighth grade.  It helps keep her mind busy.  She also starts reading her mother’s journals, and is shocked to learn that at fourteen, her mother was a cheerleader AND a member of Young Republicans.  It was later in high school, that she became a Vietnam-protesting hippie.  (The kind who names her daughter Sunshine Daydream).  Her mother’s political views estranged her from her own parents, who didn’t support her decision to attend UCLA over a Christian college.  It kind of estranged her from Morgan, though they did reconcile before the Winslow’s marriage.  Her mother never reconciled with her parents, as they died in a car accident before that could happen.  This makes Sunny grateful for the time she did get with her mother. 

At the end, Sunny, Dawn, Morgan and Dad go to the beach where Mr. Winslow proposed to scatter Mrs. Winslow’s ashes.  They have a picnic and listen to Mrs. Winslow’s favorite Joni Mitchell cassette tape.  Sunny decides that she’s going to write in her journals as though she was writing to her mother. And in her last entry, she’s sure her mother is with her, reading what’s happening in her life. 

•    Snark-free zone here today!
•    Fun fact: The Winslows are Unitarian Universalists.  Of course they are. 
•    Sunny is worried about having to repeat eighth grade.  Dawn should let her know it’s no biggie….I think Dawn started eighth grade about five times in Stoneybrook.  Also, if you look at the dates of the diaries, this is Sunny’s second trip though eighth grade anyway.  I love the BSC space-time continuum. 
•    Every time Sunny has to think of something other than her mother, she gets wracked with guilt.  Even thinking about eating or showering, or the fact that she has to decide what to wear to the funeral is too much for her. 
•    I don’t know because both of my parents are still alive, but all of Sunny’s emotions seem spot on for a thirteen year old dealing with this shit.  Ann M. seriously did a great job of portraying Sunny’s feelings.  And this book is probably the least awkward to be read in diary-format, because it’s totally believable that someone would need her journal at a time like this. 
•    A while after I finished reading this, I realized that Morgan’s parents are dead and now her only sibling is dead, and it made me feel incredibly lonely for her.  I liked Morgan. 
•    I liked that all five of the friends are together in this book. It’s rarely seen that even more than two of them are together at any given time.  Sunny even points that out – that it’s been since the night they first met Ducky that all five of them were together.  I hope it happens more often in the next few books. 
•    There’s a mention of Jill.  Oh Jill, it’s been so long.  I wonder if Ann M. intended Jill to come off as semi-retarded.  Because she kind of did.  On Sunny’s first day back at school after the funeral, Jill corners her in the bathroom and asks if she misses her mom.  Which is kind of….rude?  Not necessarily rude, just unbelievably stupid and crass. 
•    At the end, Sunny’s dad mentions donating his wife’s clothes to a woman’s shelter and Sunny can’t believe he’d do that.  He tells Sunny that her clothes smell like her and it’s too much for him to bear and he bursts into tears (and so do I!).  Sunny gets it though, and she’s shocked that her father shared such an intimate detail with her. 
•    Dear Carol – I’m sorry for all those times I called you a nitwit.  You’re a top-notch lady in my book. 
•    This is one of those things, because I know this is the last Sunny diary and I’m never going to find out what happens to her in the long run.  But she’s the type of character that I worry about.  Because I’m a dork and that’s what I do.  Worry about fictional fragile girls.

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About nikkihb

Wife. Mother. Reader. Blogger.
This entry was posted in Ann M. Martin, California Diaries, dead parents. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to "All I could think was ‘What do we do now?’" Or California Diaries #12

  1. Laura says:

    I teared up reading this. I'm not sure if I could read the book now.

  2. zehava says:

    I ❤ this book so much, I think ranks up there as one of the best YA books I've ever read, and that says a lot for a book from a series….

  3. moxobee says:

    I got kind of emotional reading this too. One of my best friends in high school lost her mom to cancer right before high school started (and right before I met her), and judging by your review it seems like Ann M got this one right.My friend didn't have as much family support as Sunny did, so she put herself through the ringer in her teens: alcohol and drug abuse, terrible boyfriends, skipping school, suicide attempts, lashing out and distancing herself from friends trying to help her, you name it.I really want to read this book, but I'm 100% sure I'll cry.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Actually, if you find the BSC Friends Forever book #11, *Welcome Home Mary Anne*, it's actually more or less a conclusion to Sunny's diaries. Basically, she and Dawn visit Mary Anne during one of the many BSC summers. I can't believe I'm saying this, because I think CD Dawn is horrendous and so self-absorbed, but she's actually a good, supportive friend to Sunny in this book.

  5. Um, yeah, I cried reading your summary, especially about the list of things she wanted to say. But I appreciate the laugh about not worrying about repeating 8th grade, talk to Dawn. And I can tell you from first hand and second hand experience, Jill's idiotic reaction is sadly more common than it should be. The amount of insensitivity/stupidity after a death is astounding. Thankfully, many people pull through to make up for it. Yay Carols in the world!

  6. I now want to read this book after reading your review nikki! Ive heard so much about this book but unfortunately the library where i live at lost a copy of this book and i never got a chance reading it (don't worry though. I plan to get this book from ebay or amazon.)i'm shocked that dawn would be supportive of sunny too considering how bitchy and rude dawn has been to sunny. Same with her dad. But i guess even the most hated characters can actually be nice for a change, and i guess this is one of dawn's good times.i love the fact that this book was written by ann herself and not ghostwriters (though i didn't mind some of them). It's been so long since ann has written a book for the babysitters club or the spin off california diaries. Maybe ann wanted to write one for the series? who knows, but i'm glad she did.This is definitely the best out of them all, right along with maggie's third diary and others.

  7. Gnatalby says:

    Oh my. I haven't read this book.But my mom died three years ago and gave me all her journals she's been keeping for at least 20 years (I haven't been able to read them yet) and we're UUs. Eerie.

  8. Amiee says:

    This sounds so sad, I'd be interested to read it especially as With You and Without You was one of my fave YA books when I was a kid.

  9. magnolia says:

    my mother died on super bowl sunday 2008 – i found out right after the game ended. she and i had been estranged, which made it weirder. now, i was 26 when this happened, not 13, so i had more coping skills than sunny did. but in one of those “ok, wow, universe” kind of coincidences, i started reading CD around this time without knowing much about it. when i got to this one, i read all the way through it without a pause or a break, and then i put it down, wept like the night i got the news all over again, composed myself and read it cover to cover again.

    even now, i’ll pick this one up from time to time. i read it every year on her birthday, and again on the anniversary of her passing. it’s the one thing that’s really helped me, more than therapy, more than my friends and family. that might sound silly, but it’s the truth. ann m. martin really did me a service with this one.

    • nikkihb says:

      You just made me tear up. It’s so weird that Ann M.’s best book would have come at the end of a series that never sold really well and was, for the most part, ghost written.

      Books are amazing, the way they help us cope. After my first son was born, I was rocked by post partum depression and what made me feel better was this silly parenting book someone got me called “Sippy Cups are Not for Chardonnay.” Not a great book, but a great comfort to me anyway. I get it for all new moms now 🙂

  10. becky says:

    Just reading the recap made me cry. I never read any of the CDs because I never really liked Dawn, but now I sort of want to. I remember finally reading the Forever Friends series as an adult and when Sunny came to visit after her mom’s death I remember crying. I always liked Mrs. Winslow.

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