Sunday, September 27, 2009

CERTAIN GIRLS and GOOD IN BED by Jennifer Weiner

A few months ago when I reviewed Sarah Dunn's Secrets to Happiness, my daughter Heidi told me I'd also enjoy Jennifer Weiner's books. I usually take Heidi's advice on just about everything, but for some reason I didn't rush right out to get Weiner's first chick-lit best-seller, Good in Bed. Something about the title made me think maybe I'd need my mother's permission to read it.

(Before reading another word, note that the author's name is pronounced WYE-ner, rhymes with finer. Forget the wisecrack you were about to make.)

A couple of weeks ago, though, I went to the library in pursuit of comic novels to take along on a week's vacation. With no particular authors or titles in mind, I wandered through the new-book shelves and the paperback racks, and the more books I looked at, the worse I felt. Some of the books were similar to the New Yorker short story genre Weiner once described in an interview as "stories [that] seem to end with someone staring off at the white walls of a white room, and you think that something's happened but you're not quite sure what." Most had actual topics, but I didn't really want to delve into depression and dysfunction and people hurting people, at least not while relaxing in a cabin by the lake.

Suddenly Good in Bed sounded quite promising. Alas, it was already checked out, so I settled for its sequel, Certain Girls. I loved it.

The underlying conflict is between a 42-year-old mother, Cannie, and her 13-year-old daughter, Joy. Joy would like to be popular with the mean girls but does not want to alienate her nerdy friends. She wants a themed bat mitzvah party and a designer dress. Above all, she wants to distance herself from her mother, about whom she hates everything--especially after reading her mother's semi-autobiographical novel, including the X-rated parts.

Weiner dexterously alternates between Joy's viewpoint and Cannie's, seasoning the mother-daughter tension with great dollops of laugh-out-loud humor. For the first four-fifths of the book I'm thinking this is exactly the comic novel I've been looking for--and then something bad happens. Just like in life.

No spoilers in this review. I'll just say that Weiner can't help being funny and hopeful, and this book is not a downer. I liked it even better than the prequel, Good in Bed, which I read as as soon as it came back to the library.

Good in Bed
lays the foundation for everything that happens in Certain Girls, and sensible people will read it first. The story takes place some 14 years earlier, when Cannie is in her late twenties and heartbroken, having just broken up with a man who is obviously (to all her friends and family) not a good bet for a long-term relationship. With all the humor of the sequel plus an improbable but delightful fairy godmother (in the form of a young, hard-drinking, big-spending movie star), this book also takes a sudden turn toward tragedy right near the end. It has to, I think, or Cannie would get permanently stuck, psychologically speaking.

Why are Weiner's books--bestsellers all--so popular? Well, she's incredibly funny. She's also intelligent--graduated summa cum laude from Princeton, for example. She connects well with readers on a personal level (if you want to be a fan, check out her blog). She tells a good story; she can be tender but is never saccharine; and her characters--despite distress and disaster--muddle through, hopefully and hilariously.

Oh, and one other thing: Cannie is a woman of size. Size 16, to be precise, and 5'10" tall--kind of like Weiner herself. Cannie's weight is not the focus of the stories, but her concern about it, and the way it makes her feel, keeps cropping up. In the "conversation" at the back of Good In Bed Weiner says, "I'd never read a book that really expressed the reality of what it's like to live in a larger-than-average body.... I wanted to encompass the unhappiness of living in a plus-size body, but also show that it's not pure, unadulterated, 200-proof misery. I wanted to show the whole scope of things--professional success, rewarding friendships, a loving, if vexing, family, a weird little dog, great meals, great adventures, and love, and self-acceptance at the end."

You don't have to look just like Cannie to have an idea of how she feels. I'm not heavy, but I'm uncommonly tall and a bit ungainly (I love Julia Child), and I have seen my reflection in a restroom mirror as I washed my hands next to 5'4" sylphlike friends, feeling like a giraffe among the gazelles. What woman has not had a similar experience, whatever her age or height or weight or disability or hair shortcomings? And what is it with us and our bodies? Why is it so hard to accept variety in the way we're packaged?

"My ideal reader," Weiner says, "is any woman who's ever felt like she needed to get undressed in the dark, any woman who's ever felt miserable about the size of her hips or the shape of her face or the texture of her hair... which is to say, lamentably, every single woman in America, and probably beyond, judging from the reception Good in Bed has gotten abroad."

Cannie, at age 28 and also at age 42, is a big woman who is doing just fine.

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