SUNDOG MOMENT: A Novel of Hope
In her jacket biography, first-time novelist Sharon Baldacci (sister to bestselling author David) is described thusly: "Sharon Baldacci was diagnosed with MS twenty-one years ago." The word choice is telling; no where does it say that Baldacci is "a victim of" or "suffers from" the disease, and her own view suffuses this novel with a sense of hope and growth from its opening.
Elizabeth Whittaker and her husband Michael have led a marvelously blessed and socially correct life. Not only are they still wildly in love after years of marriage, they have a beautiful and talented daughter attending the University of Virginia and many friends and family members in their home on Virginia's scenic Northern Neck region. Yes, despite Elizabeth's overdramatic and shallow mother, the Whittakers' life is good.
Until the moment when Elizabeth's doctor explains that her recent symptoms have an underlying cause: multiple sclerosis. So devastated is the couple that they decide at first to keep the disease a secret; Elizabeth chooses to keep wearing the very high heels she adores, even though her newly unsteady gait makes them dangerous.
And for a long time, despite a few mishaps, she is Just Fine, thank you very much --- a common stretch for people with multiple sclerosis, many of whom go for years and even decades showing few symptoms and experiencing little discomfort. But when she winds up back in the hospital and in much worse shape, Elizabeth must not only confront the reality of her disease (crutches, deep fatigue and sensible shoes) but also the reality of others' reactions to it, which drive her away from them and closer to the Neuromuscular Support Group headed by a vivacious woman with more disabilities than Elizabeth who encourages her and other members to own their lives as they are.
Unfortunately, some members of that group have an idea that helps them but harms Elizabeth (don't want to be a spoiler!). However, this incident finally gets Elizabeth to face her fear of Other Peoples' Judgments --- especially her own mother's. A subplot involving an angry yet talented young girl is meant to echo Elizabeth's growth as well as move things along. But it doesn't ring as true as does Elizabeth's recognition that only she is qualified to decide how hard things are for her --- and only she can give up her difficulties to God and let Him effect change in her life.
Throughout the novel, Elizabeth finds solace in a phenomenon that is shown to her called "sundogs": rainbow-like arcs in the sky that fishermen in particular pay attention to as heralding changes in the weather. Sundogs, technically a type of ice halo, appear on either side of the sun and do reveal real atmospheric changes --- they're not simply a folktale. Therefore, they're the perfect metaphor for Elizabeth's very real growth as a Christian --- not simply a crutch for her to use alongside the paraphernalia of her illness, but signs that she is warming up to God's all-consuming, relentless love. At first the final family scene (again, no spoiling!) seemed almost too contrived and too perfect --- but in light of the sundogs and their perfect symmetry, on a second read, Baldacci knows what she's doing. May her hope be contagious.
--- Reviewed by Bethanne Kelly Patrick
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