Julianna Margulies’ memoir, “Sunshine Girl: An Unexpected Life,” describes a series of events just as unexpected as the title implies. Peculiar twists of fate litter the actress’s history and lead the reader to wonder if there could really be so many instances in one life in which the promising proved poisonous, and the unpromising plentiful.
Though Margulies’ career is certainly sprinkled with the unlikely, “Sunshine Girl” focuses more on the actress’s personal history than on her professional career. For example, it only briefly addresses Margulies’ controversial decision to turn down $27 million to extend her contract with NBC’s medical drama series “ER.” “Sunshine Girl” instead explores how the habits of Margulies’ parents shaped her childhood, how Margulies reacted against those patterns later in life, and how she ultimately accepted and transcended them.
Margulies writes “Sunshine Girl” as a collection of brief stories, which helps the author avoid the trap of navel-gazing common to memoirs. This also helps Margulies ballast the deeper themes of her work with specific episodes and stories.
In the words of Publisher’s Weekly, “Margulies’ narrative is full of piquant anecdotes — such as the time her mother brought home a man she met at a nightclub, along with his pet monkey — and subtle, evocative character studies that suggest how her rapt attunement to her family’s mercurial personalities and self-actualizing impulses nurtured her own creative ambitions.” This combination of rationality and introspection bolsters Margulies’ credibility and allows her to assess her past without self-pity or oversimplification.
The source of this honest tone is the actress’s own struggle between action and emotion. In her preface, Margulies recounts that after wrapping “The Good Wife,” her body broke down with chickenpox due to extreme exhaustion. As a result, she realized just how much of her life had been spent relentlessly, too preoccupied with the struggle of the race to consider her own motivations for running.
But deep feelings quickly threatened to overflow. Margulies also recounts filming an early scene in “The Good Wife”: “When I walked down that hallway as Alicia, those feelings I had buried so deep that I was never fully aware they existed erupted with such a force I was rendered speechless,” she writes. “It was as if they now demanded exploration and examination.” Margulies adopted her action-oriented outlook as a result of intense, gut-wrenching emotion symptomatic of her parents’ dreamy worldview and subsequent neglect.
Because Margulies employs both fact and raw emotion in “Sunshine Girl,” her words land with a weight that cannot fail to impress her readers. Kirkus Review puts it simply: “Margulies’ unflinching quest to explain her life makes her well-crafted memoir compelling.”
Coping and Receiving
The first great strength Margulies adopts in “Sunshine Girl” is her ability to adapt herself to her surroundings — in other words, to act.
Because Margulies’ parents divorced when she was very young, she moved back and forth between different towns in Europe and America, learning to drop and pick up languages and accents with each replanting. Margulies also learned the art of performance within her own household, as her mother depended on her little “sunshine girl” to cheer her up after the end of each of her short-lived, fiery relationships.
Margulies is careful to recount that not all of her strengths adapted from adversity, and that not all of her parents’ influence was negative. Instead, the author recounts times fate twisted away from her expectations, dropping gifts upon her unsuspecting lap.
For example, while the summer jobs Margulies meticulously selected yielded only wormy fruit, Margulies’ biggest acting breakthrough occurred when she was so deeply peeved about her long wait that she delivered her lines with an anger the role didn’t call for. As a result, she was asked to read a different part instead. She earned the part, which would launch her mainstream success.
The majority of these unexpected moments occur not because of impersonal fate, but rather due to the actions of Margulies’ affectionate friends and family. The author’s anecdotes of these acts of generosity are almost enough to crack the reader’s heart.
Margulies writes that her father once protected her from a terrible work environment when she was 14, telling her to quit when Margulies felt obligated to keep her unwritten contract. In another instance, when Margulies desperately needed a dentist in college, a dentist she selected randomly from the phone book not only fixed a problem other dentists had failed to solve, but also served her free of charge. This man became a lifelong friend and even a surrogate father, supporting Margulies when her own biological father died unexpectedly.
The way Margulies describes the characters who populate her story compels readers not only to feel empathy for them, but also to marvel at how these people interact with one another in such unique and generous ways.
The Big Picture
Of course, readers owe this perspective to Margulies’ own eyes. The author saturates the pages of “Sunshine Girl” with gratitude, which began as a childhood habit. When Margulies was an adolescent, she suffered a painful bike injury and found herself stuck in bed for weeks. To give her something to do, her father brought a notepad and told her to list out her blessings on the paper. The habit stuck, and now, as an adult, Margulies keeps a copy of Oliver Sacks’ book “Gratitude” on her bedside table.
Because gratitude naturally begets grace, Margulies discerns the big-picture narrative of her life with notable accuracy. In the latter half of the book, for example, the author reflects that her childhood was a hike to overcorrect her parents’ flaws, while her adulthood is a trek to learn what a balanced and healthy life looks like for her.
Margulies is not a trained writer, but, for the most part, her lack of formal education does not interfere with the narration of the memoir. Of course, as an actress, Margulies knows her way around storytelling, and she chooses diction that is both light and action-oriented. At the same time, however, her words are drenched with an undercurrent of emotion. Though “Sunshine Girl” may not dramatically change its readers’ lives, its charm and raw emotion will open their eyes another centimeter.