Thursday, August 20, 2015

Book Review: Jennifer Weiner's Who Do You Love

Jennifer Weiner's much-anticipated new novel, Who Do You Love, was just released this month, and I swept through it in a week. Like her other novels, I was drawn to her three-dimensional characters, the way their lives intertwine, how each has his or her own arc that reaches a gratifying conclusion, and her style, which is smart and confessional with dead-on similes that echo the characters' feelings. Like other writers who get stuffed into various genres or categories, Weiner is often lumped in with chick lit, and this is unfortunate, because I believe fiction of any genre is primarily about characters and the world they inhabit, both the conscious and the unconscious, which Weiner brings to light.

So, too, did I appreciate her wit, which, in this novel, is mostly expressed through Rachel, one of two of the novel's protagonists. The other main character is Andrew Landis, who later goes by "Andy." Andy and Rachel's lives first cross paths at Miami Children's Hospital in 1985, when they are both eight years old. Andy is in the waiting room with a broken arm, and Rachel is being hospitalized for a congenital heart condition known as tricuspid atresia. Rachel has escaped from her room to the waiting room to collect gossip for her hospital friend, Alice, who has leukemia.

When Rachel and Andy part ways, neither can forget the other, and their lives cross paths many times, from that first meeting, in 1985, to when they are thirty-eight years old, in 2015.

It's the classic Billy Joel situation: an uptown girl and a downtown boy. Andy is biracial and lives in a depressed area of Philadelphia; he has a father who has passed away and a neglectful mother; and his clothes come from the church donation pile. He doesn't fit in anywhere —he is friendless —and he is tormented about being poor. But Andrew retaliates and gets into fights, until the day he realizes that he can use his anger to run, lightning fast and hard, which is when he finally feels free. Eventually, a neighbor, Mr. Sills, takes him under his wing, and Andy is given a paper route that allows him to run as fast as he can, from door to door.

Rachel is Jewish, from an upper-middle-class family, and has overprotective parents. Despite being hospitalized for her heart condition many times throughout her young life, she eventually carves out a normal childhood, with best friends, sleepovers, boys, and indulgent shopping trips.

Given their markedly different circumstances, it seems that the two will never be able to be together, yet they are, again and again, at different points in their lives. What's clear is that they love each other, but the question becomes whether that love is enough to overcome their internal struggles and build a relationship that lasts.

The star-crossed lovers' relationships with everyone else in their lives—Andy's mother, Lori; Rachel's fearful helicopter parents; Mr. Sills; Alice; boyfriends and girlfriends along the way; classmates—shift and change. There are some losses, and some relationships reach a reconciliation, while others do not. 

To amplify the tension, Weiner also provides Rachel and Andy with counterparts who embody their worst fears about themselves. For Rachel, it's her high school classmate Bethie Botts, a hostile foster kid whom Rachel, one night, humiliates and belittles. For Andy, it's his girlfriend Maisie, a Sports Illustrated model who "was made for cities, for late nights, for glamorous night clubs, for Champagne and sushi, not small towns, fish sticks, and generic ginger ale."

For years, Andy goes through life feeling unworthy of the good things that come his way. Rachel, who comes from a life of privilege, worries that she contributes to his feelings of unworthiness. When the two do come together, they act as a mirror for each other, as any intimate relationship should, dredging up each other's worst fears about themselves, each pushing the other to overcome them.

The first line of Who Do You Love comes from Rachel, who says, "I was born with a broken heart." As we read, we find out that not only was she born with a broken heart but she will have one again and again. But will her heart (and Andy's) be mended? At the beginning of the novel, Rachel asks her friend Alice, who is suffering, if it hurts. Alice says that it does, that in the end "It's going to hurt a lot." For the brokenhearted it always does, and Weiner does an excellent job fulfilling this prophecy for her characters, leaving the reader to wonder throughout the narrative if Rachel and Andy remain brokenhearted or if they commit to each other once and for all, as two whole adults who have licked clean their wounds.

Creating wounded characters is something Jennifer Weiner does best. Not only are her characters sympathetic because they are wounded, but they are sympathetic because they are like us. They have emotional scars; they have hurdles to overcome; they fail and then move on because there is no other choice, and then fail again. The characters in Who Do You Love are all just doing the best that they can, like all the rest of us. As a reader, we invest in them because we believe in them.  Given the chance, that binding label of chick lit stripped away, Rachel and Andy will breathe, because Weiner's deft touch and insight into the human condition has truly given them life.

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