Perhaps you knew one of those beautiful, magnetic, confident-by-pedigree women in college, someone who seemed to exist mysteriously and without effort better than you ever could. Such is the case for ordinary, bookish Vivian Feld in Deborah Shapiro’s engaging debut novel, “The Sun in Your Eyes.” Viv first meets Lee, the daughter of candle-in-the-wind rocker Jesse Parrish, when Lee attempts to recruit her for a cult during her freshman year at a New England college. “It was like listening to the radio,” Viv later recalls, “having been stuck on static and then finding a channel that came though strong and played songs you love.” Her life, up to that point, seemed not to have mattered; their relationship is indeed a kind of cult, if not the one Lee originally meant.
Told largely from Viv’s point of view, Shapiro’s novel is a musical whodunit. Viv, now in her early 30s, is pulled back into Lee’s orbit for a road trip after several years of estrangement. She and Lee head out in search of the almost mystical final session tapes that Jesse Parrish recorded before his death in a car accident, which left his then-4-year-old daughter to be raised by her willful and promiscuous mother. Viv, who works as a writer on a soap opera in New York, agrees to the trip despite being newly pregnant, a fact she has not yet shared with her husband. He is a committed audiophile, who in college formed the third point on a triangle with Viv and Lee.
Initially, Lee’s plan strikes her friend as “kid-detective,” and, on its face, the novel’s plot may appear this way to some readers, too. But as Viv puts it, this detective story features a “femme fatale — the one who shows up with a story full of holes and you, the cynic and the sap, still follow her.” Which is to say that, by and large, the novel is grounded in the richness of its characters, and especially in the portrait of female friendship that Shapiro has painted. In their different ways, these two women turn to one another with very human, very ambivalent needs. The novel is honest about the way old friendships are sometimes sustained on nostalgia, and about the hierarchies that exist within them, which here translate into dependencies, seductions and betrayals large and small.
Shapiro’s writing is light and lovely, evoking the sun of her title. She allows the 1970s music and the fictional Jesse Parrish to enter the novel lightly, too, through reminiscences, lyrics, clippings and descriptions of photographs. The scene, of the sort once presided over by Ellen Willis, Lester Bangs and Joan Didion, is evoked within the present-day plot as a sort of bright aura. It’s an evocative setting, but the main action remains in the space between Viv and Lee, in their closeness and distance.
Jenny Hendrix is a writer in Brooklyn.
By Deborah Shapiro
William Morrow. 280 pp. $25.99