Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Next Best Thing


     As a preteen, the Sweet Valley High series was my shield against the hormone-raging, sometimes-scary, painfully self-conscious world of my middle school. Safely tucked in my bed, I could lose myself for hours in the lives of the beautiful Wakefield sisters. Not for a second did I think the books were formulaic; their familiarity was rhythmic, even welcome. And I wasn't bothered in the least by two-dimensional characters; they all felt wonderfully simple. Those books represented escape. When I read them, I could transport myself to the always-romantic, always-exciting, always-promising life of fictional teenage girls.

     These days, I'm more discerning, and the place in my heart formerly reserved for tweenage romance has been filled with a certain brand of unpretentious women's literature (refer to it as chick lit, if you must). And so I turned recently to Jennifer Weiner’s tenth novel, The Next Best Thing. I found this book appealing because, having read her work for years, I knew what to expect: something light and airy, with a sympathetic character I’d be willing to invest in until the end. I knew, too, that as her other books have, it would deliver a gratifying resolution and a chance to forget about the mounting laundry and pile of dishes in the sink, at least for the night.

     Ruth Rachel Saunders, the novel's protagonist, is a twenty-seven-year-old television writer who lives in L.A. with her grandmother. A car accident killed both of her parents when she was three and left her with disfiguring scars on her face and neck and years of surgeries. It's during her recovery from those surgeries that she falls in love with The Golden Girls—and with writing. As an adult, insecure and lovesick, trying in vain to conceal her scars with hats and scarves, she writes The Next Best Thing, a sitcom based loosely on her own life. The show is picked up by a major network, and in the face of the many executives' changes to the cast and plot, the pressures of being in Hollywood, and the changing dynamic between her and her grandmother, Ruth is forced to find her footing as the showrunner and as an independent woman.

     As I’d imagined, Ruth’s background does make her sympathetic, but what I hadn’t expected was Weiner’s nod to Harry Crews’ novel Body, which is set against the backdrop of a female bodybuilding competition. Crews is an obscure Southern Gothic author known for writing about freaks, about broken characters in search of transformation and meaning. Ruth gives the novel to her crush as a Christmas present, but that action is not just incidental. I think Weiner hopes that the reader is able to see the parallels between the themes in Crews’ novels and The Next Best Thing. Ruth says explicitly, repeatedly that she feels like a freak. When she is casting the lead role in her show, she is looking for a woman who can identify with being an outcast. Ultimately, the network goes with a better-looking star, and although Ruth acquiesces easily enough, she laments, "In my imagination, the girl who won the role would be a girl like me, broken in some essential way, moving through a world that didn't want her." As a reader, we don’t relate to Ruth because she is an “everygirl,” as we might with other chick-lit characters. We care about her because she is wounded, so much so that her wounds are displayed for all to see, and until she believes that she is deserving of happiness, she doesn’t get it.

     The Next Best Thing is sharp and heartwarming. While I was delighted to find mention of Harry Crews' grit lit within a book that is ostensibly chick lit, I was equally happy that Weiner didn't plunge headlong into Crewsian darkness and grotesquerie; the avoidance allows the book to remain safely anchored in the genre I was seeking, melodrama and all, ripe for me to savor it the way I did the Sweet Valley High books I read as a kid. The Next Best Thing is the fifth Weiner novel that I've read, and this one, like her others, feels comforting, indulgent. The book, resting on my bedside table, might as well have been a mouth-watering piece of dark chocolate perched there beneath my lamp, wrapper of pretension flung carelessly aside, a treat to be fully enjoyed, bite by bite, each night before I drifted off to sleep.

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