05 May 2008

Some Girls Are More Certain Than Others

Jennifer Weiner's new novel CERTAIN GIRLS takes place 13 years after GOOD IN BED, in which Cannie, a twentysomething newspaper reporter, finds out the boyfriend she just dumped is writing about their sex life in a national magazine, gets depressed, gets knocked up, and (eventually) gets her act together. Cannie is now a full-time fiction writer, ghostwriting a popular sci-fi series. She is married to her love interest from CERTAIN GIRLS, Peter, and they are raising her daughter Joy together in Philadelphia. Cannie and Joy take turns narrating this book, so the plot follows two different tracks: Cannie is planning Joy's bat mitzvah and trying to deal with Peter's wish that they have another baby (through a surrogate since she had a hysterectomy); Joy gets curious enough about her mother's life to read the bestselling novel her mom wrote about her pre-baby life, and has to deal with the ramifications of that and of figuring out her place in her blended family.

I haven't done this with any of the other books, but I actually want to reread CERTAIN GIRLS soon; I wanted to know what was going to happen so badly I tore through it in an evening. I'm not surprised at all that Weiner wants to write a YA book, because CERTAIN GIRLS is half that -- and I think the strongest half. Maybe I just sympathized with Joy more because I'm closer to angsty teenager than worried mom, but I found their conflict realistic and compelling. The struggle for understanding and the gulf that develops there is something I think most people can relate to, and it's not a spoiler to say that Cannie and Joy both have their moments of not being very good to each other. Two things happen at the end that I didn't like, but at the same time, I couldn't put the book down to see what was going to happen next. (As usual, those will be in the comments.)

Another thing I really liked about this book were all the silly asides. This book makes fun of a lot of things -- scifi fandom, THE SECRET, the over-the-top opulence of the modern bar and bat mitzvah -- in a way that doesn't distract from the narrative, but gives you a little jab, like "Hey! I think that too!" Because Cannie is an author there's some metafictional stuff going on when she talks about her novel and her publishing company, but it doesn't distract.

I'll close this post by addressing the review which caused the most commotion around the book's release. Author Jane Smiley, writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer, criticized the book for being "pink" both in color (cover and endpapers both) and in subject (neglecting the male characters for a plot and material that would appeal only to females). I highly doubt that Weiner set out to write a book men couldn't read, and who knows how much input she had into the cover design, but I wonder if Smiley isn't pointing the finger in the wrong direction. Instead of asking, "Why is this book about a mother and daughter?" I would rather ask, "What's in our culture that a book about a mother and a daughter can't have broad appeal?"

Sure, male readers may not be able to relate to some things that happen in the book, but that shouldn't put them off. Although I'm sure Smiley didn't intend this, I find the notion that Weiner should have expanded the roles of the male characters in the book to be a little misogynistic, when children's book characters are disproportionately male and it's news when a movie starring two women takes the top spot at the box office. I didn't really notice their absence. I have another comment about this that I will leave in the spoiler pit below.

1 comment:

Ellen said...


Here be spoilers!

Turn back!!

Okay, the misogyny thing first. There are two characters in this book who get badmouthed a lot, Joy's birth father Bruce and Cannie's dad. Bruce gets more or less redeemed, and Cannie's dad is pretty much revealed to be the total jerk Cannie TOLD Joy he was. I still didn't like Bruce any better than when he was in GOOD IN BED, but you can see at least how Joy needs that relationship with him and how he can provide that in a limited quantity. To invest him with foibles is human, right?

So... the end. There's one thing I didn't like because I thought it was too familiar, and there's one thing I didn't like because the book was over and I needed to know what happened next. I am speaking of course of the trip to L.A. and of Peter's death. The trip to L.A. reminded me too much of IN HER SHOES and the grandma trip, and I find it hard to believe that Joy could pull it off (although if I were 13 I would certainly want to believe it!)

That death though, oh man, it wrecked me. I started the book on the train out to Brooklyn and finished it when I got back for the night, and I audibly gasped when I hit that part. Honestly, it was a little bit of "How COULD you?! Everything was going so well, people were talking, life had just about settled..." This is where Weiner I think is better than the company she keeps, though, as much as I hated her for that moment of discovery. My strong reaction to that is proof that I had grown to care about him, a character I found to be kind of unbelievable in GOOD IN BED, and cared about him enough to be sad at his passing.