Tag Archives: Jennifer Weiner

Poor, Poor Pitiful Me

The Next Best Thing: A Novel by Jennifer Weiner (Atria Books, $26.99, 400 pages; AudioWorks Audio, Unabridged on 11 CDs, $39,99)

Songs Without Words: A Novel by Ann Packer (Vintage, $14.95, 384 pages; Random House Audio, Unabridged on 11 CDs, $34.95)

This review is a duet of sorts.   Both books were read in the audio format.   They explore what can happen when a young girl loses a parent or multiple parents.   Ironically, each begins on a separate coast of the U.S.; however, all the main characters end up in California, albeit Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, respectively.   As we’re often told in self-help books and philosophical literature, it’s not the incident that shapes us, but rather, the way we react to it.   Each of these tales packs a wallop of an incident.

In The Next Best Thing, we learn that young Ruthie Saunders endured the horror of an automobile crash that killed both her parents and maimed her for life.   Ruthie’s face is mangled on one side, as is her body.   She has the good fortune to be the granddaughter of a truly kind and loving woman who steps in and gives her a life filled with hope and understanding.

Although Ruthie braved numerous painful surgeries over the years and the unsympathetic stares of her classmates, she persevered.   Her scars and physical limitations are vivid and readily noticeable but her spirit is strong.   Together with her beloved grandma, Trudy, Ruthie travels from the East Coast to take on the daunting challenge of breaking into the Hollywood television writing scene.   She becomes a promising comedy writer in Hollywood and even has a boyfriend.   The story takes on a sense of urgency when Ruthie’s autobiographical sitcom script is given the green light and is produced as a television show.

For sixteen-year-old Sarabeth life had always been difficult.   Her mom had overwhelming difficulties with depression that overshadowed the family.   Luckily for Sarabeth, her best friend Liz – who lived across the street in upscale Palo Alto, California – had a loving and good-natured family that helped to balance her life.   This difficult yet somewhat stable life was destroyed when Sarabeth’s mom committed suicide.   In this case, Liz’ family took her in and provided a home when Sarabeth’s father fled to the East Coast.

Despite years of loving friendship from Liz, Sarabeth nearly wallows in self-pity and neediness despite her outward good looks.   Her choices in men run to ones who are married with children.   Her career is limited to small artsy projects and a meek existence in a somewhat-dilapidated cottage behind another house in Berkeley.   The real challenge comes when Liz’ daughter acts on her own suicidal impulses.   Liz is unable to grasp how her robotic take on life has failed her daughter.   The supportive friendship between Sarabeth and Liz falls apart.

Given the remarkable parallels, these two tales could not be more dissimilar.   Both of these authors are well-known and very successful; however, Jennifer Weiner demonstrates her ability to craft engaging, sympathetic, and dare I say,  spunky characters.   This reviewer’s attention was fully focused on Ruthie and her life while Sarabeth provoked a slight revulsion due to her clueless self-pity and lack of empathy.   Ann Packer chose to portray a pair of lifeless and clueless women whose plights evoked barely a stirring of compassion.   In fact, a song title for a review of this book could easily have been, Get Over It.

As always, the narrators contributed significantly by literally setting the tone for the listener.   Olivia Thirlby gave Ruthie in The Next Best Thing a youthful, optimistic and somewhat naive voice.   She drew this listener in and brought out feelings of caring and hope for Ruthie and Grandma Trudy.

Conversely, Cassandra Campbell’s pervasive monotone was heavy and lacked the necessary inflections that produce engagement in the listener.   To her credit, Campbell had a difficult assignment as she portrayed Sarabeth, Liz and her daughter.

The Next Best Thing is Highly Recommended, while Songs Without Words has a limited audience – folks who don’t mind devoting the time and money this difficult story requires.

Ruta Arellano

These audiobooks were purchased by the reviewer’s husband.

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Coming Up Next…

A review of The Next Best Thing: A Novel by Jennifer Weiner.

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A Summer Reading List

Our local fish wrapper challenged its avid readers to come up with their own list of books to read this summer.   Here’s my list of ten (10):

Shut Your Eyes Tight: A Novel by John Verdon (July)

The second retired NYPD Detective Dave Gurney novel from the author of the mind-blowing Think of a Number.

Very Bad Men: A Novel by Harry Dolan (July)

Not quite as good as Think of a Number, but a close and exciting runner-up.

Fault Lines: A Novel by Anne Rivers Siddons (January)

From the author of Off Season, it’s set in the redwood country near Santa Cruz, with stops in Atlanta, San Francisco, and Hollywood-Los Angeles.

Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger (June)

The true story of the monumental love affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.   “Reads like a Shakespearean drama.”   USA Today

Skipping a Beat: A Novel by Sarah Pekkanen (February)

Her debut novel, The Opposite of Me, was endorsed by Judith Weiner.   Enough said.

Guilt by Association: A Novel by Marcia Clark (April)

I’ve read it, but it was so much fun that I look forward to reading it again!

The American Heiress: A Novel by Daisy Goodwin (June)

What happens after a storybook wedding?

The Astral: A Novel by Kate Christensen (June)

This story has as many weaknesses as it has strengths, but it is highly engaging in an inexplicable way.

Robert Redford: The Biography by Michael Feeney Callan (May)

Biographies of famous but  secluded figures tend to be either brilliant or full and complete disasters.   I’m interested in seeing which category this one falls into.

Before Ever After: A Novel by Samantha Sotto (August)

A debut novel about a woman who finds out that her dead husband (going on three years) may very well be alive.

Joseph Arellano

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Suburban Dreams

Commuters by Emily Gray Tedrowe (Harper Perennial; June 29, 2010)

This is the first novel by Emily Gray Tedrowe and it may gain her admission into the club of today’s best women writers.   At one point in Commuters, a character goes on vacation and takes with her “a satisfyingly quiet Anne Tyler novel.”   Anne Tyler, Anna Quindlen, and Jennifer Weiner are just three of the popular authors whose influence can be observed in Commuters.

Commuters deals with the lives of individuals who, while they live in a quiet one-square-mile suburb, are only a train ride away from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan.   It is also about the way people’s lives change – sometimes instantly – when their partners and family members experience tragedy or opportunity.

The story begins with the marriage of seventy-eight-year-old Winnie Easton to Jerry Travis, a wealthy businessman from Chicago.   Winnie and Jerry (a widow and widower) had met once while both were in their twenties attending a wedding, and now each is taking a chance on this late in life pairing.   For Winnie, the act of getting married to Jerry may be her first taste of true freedom:  “She had married once because it was a good match, mostly for her parents and his…  But now she found herself about to do something that felt like the first thing she’d ever done on her own…  She was marrying a man for the delicious and wicked and simple reason that she wanted to.”

Winnie and Jerry’s children, grandchildren, and in-laws all, of course, have their own strong opinions about the wisdom of their joining together for better or worse.   In Commuters, the story is told from Winnie’s viewpoint; from that of her distracted and tired daughter Rachel (whose one-time lawyer husband has recovered from a serious accident); from the perspective of her angry daughter-in-law Annette, who views Winnie as an opportunistic gold-digger; and from the perspective of Avery, Jerry’s troubled grandson.

Each of these individuals has hopes and dreams – Avery for example wants to be the owner-chef of his own restaurant in Brooklyn – which may rely, in part, on securing some of Jerry’s fortune via inheritance.   Winnie becomes a wild card thrown into the game that forces everyone to scramble and re-evaluate their positions vis-a-vis Jerry.   The well-planned timetables for getting on Jerry’s good side are now thrown out of whack; even more so when Annette elects to sue her father for the control of his business and Jerry’s mental and physical health begins to fade.

Tedrowe does a remarkable job of telling this story from four different perspectives.   All sound like true voices and a wrong note is never heard.   The author incorporates a couple of sex scenes in a way that is subtle, unlike so many of today’s popular fiction writers who drop in such scenes in an attempt to enliven boring narratives.

Each of the narrators in Commuters encounters either unexpected opportunity or tragedy, regardless of their age, maturity or economic standing in life.   This novel informs us that dealing with family and dealing with money are two equal challenges.   And then there’s the matter of love, which does always win in the end.

Commuters also tells us that we’re seeing the emergence of a great new talent in Tedrowe.   Let us hope that she keeps up her craft.   If so, her name may one day be mentioned alongside that of another highly gifted writer, Anne Lamott.

Highly recommended.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Shameless

Bunco Babes Gone Wild by Maria Geraci   Berkley Trade, $14.00, 316 pages

Bunco Babes comes disguised as a Jennifer Weiner-like chick-lit novel.   Like Weiner’s Best Friends Forever, it starts off jerky and disjointed before changing gears and offering the promise of a good story.   But in Babes this preface is just a façade, as the story degrades into a sex romp with characters having sex in near-public places.   The story is supposedly about Georgia, whose divorced boss/boyfriend does not want to commit to her so she runs off to Florida to lick her wounds – among other things – at her sister’s house.   There she runs into a Latin hunk (“Mr. Hunky” to her and her sister’s friends), whose chest muscles are always heaving.

Eventually Georgia begins to forget her ex-employer as she has sex in an exhibit hall closet with Mr. Hunky while hundreds of guests attend a major function at the junction.   Author Geraci supposedly warrants a pat on the back for ensuring that her Mr. Hunky uses a condom while jumping on Georgia; he’s a so-called “safe driver.”

Our mothers and aunts read racy novels like those written by Harold Robbins.   The Carpetbaggers or A Stone for Danny Fisher would be considered to be of National Book Award quality when compared to the ultra-trashy Babes.

Reprinted courtesy of San Francisco Book Review.

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Coming Up Next…

the girl who (sm.)A review of the novel The Girl Who Stopped Swimming by Joshilyn Jackson.

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Best Friends Forever: A Novel

Best Friends Forever 4 (audio)Jennifer Weiner is not your typical writer of popular fiction.   Her slow and dry style causes one to under-estimate her before she starts effortlessly shifting through the gears like an F1 (Formula One) driver.   The more you read, the more fun and humor she adds to the telling, making the second half of Best Friends Forever seem much shorter than the first half.

The reader also has fun because we realize that we know these people in real life…   The fun-loving and popular Val, the down-on-herself Addie (whom others trust and believe in more than she believes in herself), the punkish and mean Dan Swansea, responsible Jordan Novick…   All are as real as the people we went to high school or college with.

I didn’t think I’d say about this about 100 pages into Best Friends Forever, but I can say it now.   Count me in as a member of Jennifer Weiner’s fan club!

Thanks to Atria Books for the review copy.

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