Netzer’s debut, about a heavily pregnant woman left to care for her dying mother and autistic son while her Nobel-winning husband travels to the moon, takes the literary concept of charmingly quirky characters to a new level.
Sunny is born in Burma in 1981 to missionary parents. After her father’s death at the hands of the Communists, Sunny’s mother, Emma, settles with Sunny in rural western Pennsylvania, where she mistakenly hopes Sunny will be accepted despite her glaring abnormality—she is hairless and permanently bald, and Emma will not allow her to wear a wig. Sunny finds her soul mate in Maxon, the youngest son of cartoonishly abusive white-trash parents. If Sunny is brilliant and a little odd, Maxon is a genius far along the autism continuum. For Maxon, whose work with artificial intelligence has made him rich and won him a Nobel by age 30, the boundary between human and robot is erasable. He plots interpersonal interactions in terms of mathematical formulas. Nevertheless, he and Sunny’s love is shown as Shakespearian in its passion and depth. But when Sunny becomes pregnant with their son Bubber, maternal instincts push her toward conformity: wig wearing and suburbia. She wants to cure Bubber of the autism he has evidently inherited and becomes less patient with Maxon’s exceptionality. Sunny is far along in her second pregnancy and coping with Emma’s approaching death from cancer when Maxon leaves for his mission to colonize the moon with robots. While he faces a crisis in space that shows him how much his relationships on earth matter, Sunny stops wearing her wig, medicating Bubber to control him and maintaining Emma endlessly on life support. She drops her pretense of normality, only to realize that there may be no such thing as normal; everyone wears a metaphorical wig.
Talky uplift and a self-congratulatory tone bog down the novel, but through compelling characters, Netzer raises a provocative question: Is autism a disability, a gift or the norm of the future?