Sunshine State embodies Florida's unpredictability in the best sense. The essays are structurally intricate and ultraprecise in their depictions of both the physical and human worlds. Always intimate and never insular, they span a wide range of subjects—some trace the personal roots of family histories and youth and lost friendships, while others look outward to environmental conservation, religion, and homelessness ... Why is Florida so fucked up? That's a question I've heard, in one form or another, many times over. At least a partial answer can be located in the labyrinths of systemic dysfunction that Gerard describes, though of course broken systems are hardly unique to the Sunshine State. In this way, Florida is one of the most American states in the union ... Sunshine State is utterly without sentiment or the Dave Barry wackiness so often ascribed to Florida. Instead Gerard pierces the sunshine and shows us the storm.
Thanks to books by John Jeremiah Sullivan (Pulphead) and Leslie Jamison (The Empathy Exams) and a handful of other young writers, the essay collection has new impetus and drama in American letters. The essay has gained ground on the short story. Sunshine State deserves to be talked about in this company, even if its essays are hit-and-miss. When Gerard is on, she is really on ... The first essay ['BFF'] is a knockout, a lurid red heart wrapped in barbed wire ... Two of the longer pieces, about work to care for the homeless in Florida and about a troubled bird sanctuary, are serious and impeccably reported. But the author’s voice is lost in the telling. She’s best when her evocations of the frenzy that is Florida are personal.
...[a] penetrating and deeply felt debut collection of essays ... [In 'Mother, Father, God'] Gerard strikes just the right balance between objective distance and glimpsed emotion. She also establishes the dynamic she uses to great effect throughout the book: unflinchingly candid memoir bolstered by thoughtfully researched history ... Sunshine State is not a glowing encomium of Florida, nor is it a snarky takedown. Instead, it's a drifting, psychogeographical exploration of a place she once called home — and that, in return, has come to live inside her.
For all of this new book’s color and ambition, it’s curiously lacking in voice, emotion and even very many ideas, as if the stripped-down language of Gerard’s fiction doesn’t quite translate to this hybrid genre and its different demands. At one point a source asks, 'Are you a journalist?' and Gerard replies, 'I’m more of a memoirist.' In fact, she borrows from both disciplines without taking full possession of either.
Gerard offers us personal essay and reportage side-by-side sans judgment or critique, leaving us to draw our own conclusions ... She inserts herself into her stories in both highly personal ways and as a second party observer, leaving the reader with a map of her internal landscape as well as a Floridian topography. The combined effect is a bird’s eye view of the state at large. In Gerard’s work, the body is made of star stuff. The personal is political.
...her book perfectly captures the idiosyncrasies of the Gulf Coast ... What slowly emerges throughout the course of Gerard’s searching is a clear-eyed dismantling of the American dream: the idea that we are the individual architects of our fates, each with the power to will for ourselves the lives we want, the abundance we desire — wealth we trust will lead to true happiness ... Gerard has a keen ear for absurdist logic, the contortions of language through which the dreamer rebuffs reality. Sunshine State is full of such dreamers.
...[an] outstanding collection ... Gerard’s writing has been described as 'unflinching,' but perhaps the better terms are 'generous' and “patient.” Her patience is what gets her close enough to her subjects that she can round them out, exhibit their complexities, and her generosity is what keeps her from mocking them...In Gerard’s hands, the people who would ordinarily be flattened into condescending headlines are given space to take fuller shape, and she’s able to pick at the scabs to probe the scars beneath.
Sunshine State, her new collection of essays, is animated by the awareness of a native who knows Florida, for better and for worse, and wants to get at the truths inside the cons ... Florida is often played for laughs in literature, but Gerard knows it too well to do anything that simple. The shadows bring depth to Sunshine State.
It takes someone with orange juice in their veins and alligators in their heart to truly bring the lessons of a place as complex as Florida to bear. To look past the banalities and old-hand shorthand which marks our discourse over the state—most of it joking—requires a native. Sarah Gerard, of Pinellas County, is just that person ... Sunshine State does not provide easy answers to any of the questions it dredges up, nor is it meant to; it is left to the reader—and the nation—to sift through the mangrove mud and crab carapaces.
Brave, keenly observational, and humanitarian, Gerard’s collection of essays illuminates the stark realities of Florida’s Gulf Coast. With a mixture of investigative journalism and firsthand experience, she brings to life outspoken zealots, hopeless romantics, and escapist youth ... Gerard is a virtuoso of language, which in her hands is precise, unlabored, and quietly wrought with emotion ... Gerard’s collection leaves an indelible impression. Fans of literary nonfiction and dark reverie will welcome it.
Notable for sharply drawn portraits, her essays depict a host of unusual, eccentric men and women ... The title essay, although it also would have benefited from further editing, vividly portrays the bizarre director of the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, where Gerard visited as a child and returned as a volunteer to conduct research. 'The Mayor of Williams Park' offers an engaging profile of an unlikely activist working to ameliorate homelessness. An intimate journey reveals a Florida few visitors would ever discover.