Women Who Don't Give Up

Dropping a dress size isn't usually the route to well-being for this author's heroines, but this time around it doesn't hurt.

Yael Shapira
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Yael Shapira

Best Friends Forever, by Jennifer Weiner Atria / Simon & Schuster, 362 pages, $27

At the beginning of Jennifer Weiner?s new novel, "Best Friends Forever," 33-year-old Addie Downs comes home from a disastrous blind date, changes out of the skirt, blouse and itchy lace bra that constitute her "date uniform" and into her favorite flannel pajamas, and allows herself "one brief, dry, spinsterish sob." Sitting on the edge of her bed, she thinks about "the girl I?d been, and what she would have made of the woman I?d become. I imagined the little me standing at the doorway of my bedroom, once my parents?, in a neat cotton sweater and pleated skirt ... Still here? she?d think, and then I?d have to explain."

What Addie needs to explain to her younger self is all the reasons why her life falls short of what she thinks it should be: Why she is still living in her dead parents' house in a small Illinois town; why she swapped her dreams of study and travel for a solitary career as a greeting-card illustrator; why she has had only one boyfriend -- kind of -- and is now rather listlessly negotiating the world of Internet dating, with its "freaks and geeks and unexpected mustaches."

As a wryly narrated novel about a single woman looking for love, "Best Friends Forever" immediately declares its affinity to the genre known as "chick lit." A relative newcomer to the popular fiction market, the so-called chick-lit novel is perhaps best known for its heroine, a young (or youngish ) woman who, taking her cue from Bridget Jones, offers an intimate, self-deprecating account of her quest for happiness, which in most cases means romance and love. The chick-lit narrative is a kind of Cinderella story, albeit one in which the fairy godmother sometimes refuses to materialize, leaving it to the heroine to plot her own way out of her ash-stained rags. The happy ending is a given and usually includes a Prince Charming -- in Addie's case, local police chief Jordan Novick, recently divorced and apparently just waiting around in his police cruiser to become Addie's true love.

The weather girl blows in

The quest for happiness in "Best Friends Forever" is both a literal road trip and a trip down memory lane, back to Addie's traumatic teen years. On the night of her 15-year high-school reunion, which Addie refuses to attend, a knock on the door announces the sudden arrival of her former best friend, the vivacious Valerie Adler, now a weather girl for a local TV station in Chicago. Valerie is enough of a celebrity to merit having her image pasted around the city: "'Look who just blew into town!' the billboards read, underneath a picture of Val, all windswept hair and crimson, smiling lips."

The bloodstain on the sleeve of the real-life Valerie and the panic in her face declare that she is in trouble, and the two women embark on a series of adventures that allow them to reconnect after many years of estrangement. Interlaced with their present-day exploits are flashbacks that unfold the story of their friendship, from the day 9-year-old Val moved into the house across the street from Addie's to the brutal high school politics that tore them apart.

Weiner has said that in "Best Friends Forever" she wanted to answer the question, "What if Thelma and Louise didn't have to die?" The set of events that cause Addie and Val to hit the road in an ancient station wagon, trailing a cloud of blue smoke, do include rape and an act of retribution that sets police chief Novick on their trail. Their trip, however, is not a genuine flight from the law (or, at least, not a very convincing one ); rather, the circumstances that lead to their departure seem contrived to advance the plot's main focus -- Addie's gradual emergence from the lonely bubble in which she has secluded herself over the years. This aspect of the novel is less successful, and works best as a kind of intermittent parody, such as when the two women stop to withdraw cash from Addie's savings account, and Val suggests that they rob the place (Valerie to teller: "We need ten Gs in unmarked, nonsequential bills." Addie: "Ignore her, she doesn't have a gun." Valerie: "Do so." Addie: "Valerie, that's a tampon case." ).

The flashback segments are stronger, because they give Weiner a chance to do what she does best: paint a sensitive, funny portrait of an intelligent young woman who comes of age with the unhappy knowledge that she fails to live up to society's standards, especially its ideal of female beauty, and yet nonetheless retains a stubborn sense of her own worth.

Can Cinderella get the prince without the makeover? The question, with which Weiner's writing is often preoccupied, is symptomatic of the genre as a whole. For all of her independence, humor and bravado, the typical chick-lit heroine is plagued by the dream of the self she could become, if she just got in shape, bought the right shoes, wowed her bosses with a brilliant new idea. While they may seem to celebrate the freedoms of contemporary womanhood, chick-lit novels are often at heart deeply insecure, their happy endings offering not only the delights of romantic love or career advancement, but also intense relief at being validated at last.

Weiner has been writing about the dilemma of whether to internalize or resist society's standards ever since her debut novel, "Good in Bed" (2001 ), whose heroine, Cannie Shapiro -- Jewish, large-bodied, sharp-mouthed -- was admittedly an alter ego for Weiner herself. "It absolutely was a conscious decision to write about a quote-unquote larger woman who has some self-doubt and insecurity but also knows that she's funny, smart and desirable to at least a small segment of American men," Weiner said in an interview about Cannie (whose story she continued in the 2008 sequel "Certain Girls" ). The idea of a popular novel with a fat heroine seemed to some of the publishers she approached utterly ludicrous; who would want to read it? Weiner persisted, and the book became a best-seller.

Fairy-tale transformation

Since then her books have repeatedly raised the possibility -- quite a radical one for American popular culture these days -- that being overweight is not the real impediment to love and happiness; self-loathing is. Of the two sisters in Weiner's 2002 "In Her Shoes" (made into a movie in 2005 ), it is Rose, not her knockout sister Maggie, who ends up in a fulfilling relationship ? and the fairy-tale transformation that makes her happy ending possible involves a new sense of well-being, not a subscription to Weight Watchers.

In this sense, "Best Friends Forever" is much more conventional, even disappointingly so. Weiner goes beyond the "quote unquote larger woman" character, giving us a heroine who at one point is so obese, she gets stuck in a restaurant booth -- a humiliating experience that finally pushes Addie to lose weight, until, as she reports, "I'd made my way from scary-fat into the neighborhood of regular-fat, where I could fit into the clothes at the plus-size shop at the mall, instead of having to order everything on the Internet." Jordan's reaction to a picture of Addie at her heaviest suggests that Weiner, too, requires her heroine to meet a particular standard of beauty on her way to happiness, even if it is not the same standard held by society: Addie, Jordan thinks, has "reinvented herself. She was normal now, a woman you wouldn't necessarily notice or look twice at."

In the great chick-lit divide between the heroine's constant, anxious need to remake herself and the possibility of self-acceptance -- the conflict between, so to speak, the itchy lace bra and the flannel pajamas -- Weiner has always seemed to me to come down, in the end, on the side of the flannel pajamas. While she has been candid about the private anguish that overweight women suffer in a culture obsessed with being thin, she has never treated them as objects of pity. And so to read that Jordan sees Addie's photograph in her obese days and thinks that her "sweet, tentative smile ... made her size all the more heartbreaking, because it was the smile of a woman who hadn't given up" is something of a letdown. Weiner's ongoing negotiation with the Cinderella story has produced, in this case, a rather predictable sequence of events: first the metamorphosis, then -- and only then -- the happy ending.

Nevertheless, the very fact that Weiner always seems to be intelligently pondering the genre's formulas, whether or not she ends up lapsing into them, is what makes her novels enjoyable, easy reads that are also thought-provoking. The pleasure of popular fiction -- be it the detective novel, the legal thriller or the paperback romance -- always lies in its blend of the predictable and the surprising. Even if, as Stephen King says of his own horror novels, popular fiction is "the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and a large fries from McDonald's," popular novels are not as identical to one another as the frozen beef patties flipped on the fast-food grill. Readers loyally return to their favorite genres because they know exactly what they will be getting, yet they also develop preferences within their chosen category, responding with particular pleasure (or dismay ) to an author's distinctive choice of tone and detail. Weiner's novels may deal in such cliched chick-lit materials as self-discovery and the search for Mr. Right, but her voice is very much her own: warm, humorous, and at times surprisingly sharp.

Dr. Yael Shapira is co-editor, with Omri Herzog and Dr. Tamar S. Hess, of "Popular and Canonical: Literary Dialogues" (Resling, 2007, in Hebrew ).

Haaretz Books, January 2010, haaretzbooks@gmail.com



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