The Sunshine Girls: A Novel
- By Molly Fader
- Graydon House
- 368 pp.
- Reviewed by Bárbara Mujica
- December 23, 2022
On sisterhood, friendship, and the secret lives of our mothers.
Sisters Clara and Abbie Beecher were inseparable as girls, but as adults they went different ways. Clara became a high-powered attorney involved in a lesbian relationship, while Abbie married and had children. Now, in 2019, they have come together once again in their hometown of Greensboro, Iowa, for the funeral of their mother, BettyKay.
As friends gather to laud BettyKay’s generosity and civic spirit, the funeral is suddenly interrupted by the arrival of an unexpected visitor: the movie star Kitty Devereaux. What can she possibly be doing here?, everyone wants to know.
Annoyed at the disruption, Clara and Abbie interrogate Kitty, who, it turns out, was a close friend of their mother at St. Luke’s School of Nursing in the late 1960s. At St. Luke’s, new students were called “sunshine girls” because they were starting bright new lives filled with opportunity. To their amazement, the girls learn that their mother and the Hollywood celebrity maintained their friendship over the years, and that Kitty is quite well informed about the sisters’ lives.
Katherine Simon, as Kitty was registered at school, enrolled at St. Luke’s because Iowa was “a long way from Atlanta,” where she grew up, and she was anxious to get away from an untenable home situation. She had no interest in becoming a nurse. An expert seamstress, she supported herself by doing alterations or designing clothes for her classmates. She read movie magazines instead of anatomy textbooks and dreamt of becoming a costume designer in Hollywood. She left St. Luke’s without graduating and, with BettyKay’s help, took off for California.
BettyKay defied her parents to attend college and pursue a career. A stellar student, she was about to become a certified nurse when an arrogant physician, who thought nurses should blindly obey orders and not demonstrate compassion, interrupted her plans. Flummoxed and angry, BettyKay flew out to the West Coast to join Kitty, who had become a celebrated actress instead of a costume designer.
Over the years, the women’s friendship was cemented by the exchange of a symbolic set of buttons that passes from one to the other throughout the novel.
At school, the two were close friends with Jenny Hopkins, a Black girl from Grand Rapids who wanted to become an Army nurse in order to keep her brother from being sent to Vietnam. Smart, hardworking, and perseverant, Jenny realized her dream, serving alongside physicians who treated her as a colleague, rather than as an underling. After the war, she married and raised a family, keeping in touch with her old schoolfriends and often serving as the voice of common sense in their turbulent lives.
As Clara and Abbie question Kitty and later visit her in Los Angeles, they learn things about their mother that they could never have suspected. In Hollywood, BettyKay got a taste of celebrity life. Everywhere, reporters and admirers fell over Kitty:
“Fans outside the theater smacked on the windows and trunk of the limo as it peeled away from the curb. We could hear their muffled screams from inside the car. There were flashes and pops of cameras in every window. ‘Kitty! Kitty Devereaux!’”
But, BettyKay soon discovered, the glamour and glitz veiled a dark side. Following Kitty to screenings and movie shoots, BettyKay met many celebrities, including the heartthrob Rex Daniels, whom she called “the handsomest man I’d ever seen in real life.” Sometimes, during filming, BettyKay’s nursing skills came in handy, as the official studio medic actually knew nothing about medicine. On one occasion, she attended to Rex after he had a bad accident. Soon, it became clear that the only function of the so-called medic was to supply him with drugs.
As BettyKay grew closer to Rex, she realized he was an addict. As a nurse, she knew her duty was to heal people, not watch them destroy themselves. Although Kitty offered to help her find lucrative work in Hollywood, BettyKay decided to leave. Inspired by Jenny’s descriptions of her service in Vietnam, BettyKay made up her mind to join her and put her skills to practical use. Afterward, she returned to the States and married Willis Beecher, who would become a strong, stalwart father figure to Clara and Abbie.
As Clara and Abbie learn more about their mother’s past, they begin to come to terms with the turmoil in their own lives: Clara is embroiled in a conflict with her partner, and Abbie’s marriage is falling apart. At the same time, they grow closer to one another, reclaiming the intimacy they had shared as children.
Furthermore, they feel a new appreciation for their mother as they come to understand her relationship with Kitty, the sacrifices the women made for each other, and the binding secret they harbored for decades. Through Kitty’s descriptions and BettyKay’s diary, the sisters learn not only of their mother’s untold fortitude, but also of their father’s extraordinary generosity. Ultimately, they realize that sometimes the people you think you know best are the ones you don’t really know at all.
Molly Fader’s sensitive portrayal of female bonding is altogether moving and uplifting. Although at first the tensions between Kitty and the sisters and between the sisters themselves seem unsurmountable, as the truth of their circumstances gradually emerges, barriers begin to fall. While an attentive reader might guess the secret at the core of the story before it is revealed, this in no way reduces the impact of Fader’s powerful dénouement. The love that binds these women is the overriding theme we’re left with.
Also fascinating are Fader’s meticulous descriptions of nurse training. One is not surprised to read in her author’s note that her mother, to whom the book is dedicated, was a nursing student in the 1960s. Overall, The Sunshine Girls is a complex, penetrating, and beautifully written story — a novel not to be missed.
Bárbara Mujica is a novelist, short-story writer, and essayist. Her latest novel is Miss del Río, based on the life of Dolores del Río, Hollywood’s first major Latina star. Her other novels include the international bestseller Frida, based on the relationship between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Sister Teresa, based on the life of Teresa of Ávila, and I Am Venus, which explores the identity of the model for Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus. Her collection of stories, Far from My Mother’s Home (Spanish edition: Lejos de la casa de mi madre), focuses on the immigrant experience. Collateral Damage, published last March by the University of Virginia Press, is an edited collection of women’s war writing, and Imagining Iraq contains short stories told from the perspective of the mother of a veteran. Mujica’s scholarly study Women Religious and Epistolary Exchange in the Carmelite Reform won the GEMELA Prize this year for best book on early modern Hispanic women of 2021.