'The Next Best Thing' more evidence of Jennifer Weiner's way with productive fantasy

From the book jacket
From the book jacket
Posted: July 11, 2012

The Next Best Thing By Jennifer Weiner Atria Books. 400 pp. $26.99

The pivotal moment in Jennifer Weiner's latest novel comes when Hollywood show-runner Ruth Saunders watches two actors rehearse a scene from her sitcom.

It's a virtual turning point for 28-year-old Ruthie, who has crafted this more satisfying version of her real-life split from boyfriend Gary. The two-dimensional man who dumped her after her script was green-lighted for development is recast as complex: "scared, a guy who'd hurt before he could get hurt himself, who kept a veneer of hipster cynicism and false bravado shellacked over his own insecurities." And though actress Cady Stratton is not the "Daphne" Ruthie envisioned — she's "as Jewish as a ham sandwich" and conventionally beautiful — Cady is powerful as she delivers Ruthie's belated breakup lines: "I might be back. But I won't be crawling. And I won't be coming back to you."

Ruthie, whose parents were killed in the car accident that left her face and psyche scarred, praises her avatar's performance in the pilot, saying, "Every girl who's ever wanted something and worried that she wasn't good enough to get it is going to watch that and feel affirmed." The scene is important to Ruthie's creative coming-of-age in an industry ruled by ageism, sexism, and narcissism — and key to Weiner's affectionate following and her parking spot on the New York Times Best Sellers list.

This is productive fantasy; the dramatic formula that ensures Weiner's books' popularity also engages the reader in practical dilemmas related to gender, family, and work.

The Next Best Thing is a tribute to Ruthie's grandmother, who raised her, and an homage to The Golden Girls, her small-screen companions during a childhood spent in hospitals "recovering from various surgeries intended to repair the damage the accident had done."

For Ruthie, "putting a show together [is] sort of like building a family" — and when (after three years as assistant to the writer's assistant on The Girls' Room) she's finally running the show, she tries to re-create a family she can belong to, in which "it wasn't about being thin or young or pretty." She writes Nanna Trudy as "a woman with … a sex drive that wasn't a punch line … with demons to conquer and wisdom to share." Instead of scars, she gives Daphne pounds. Off the set, she casts herself as the good boss who mentors writers, coaches actresses, and rejects the idea of success as a zero-sum game.

But this is television, where "normal is real-world gorgeous" and the first rule of the writers' room is "Don't hire yourself." In the time it takes to shoot the pilot, sell it to the network, and toast the show's premiere, Ruthie falls in love with her former boss (Dave Carter) and loses control of her script — a heartbreaking and often hilarious process of negotiation that Weiner relays with convincing detail. In the ways Ruthie's willing to compromise to keep her show on the air, she finds herself: the abandoned girl who wrote mean blind items for her high school newspaper inside the adult woman whose sharp humor expresses her pain. Like the college application essays she helps teenagers write (as a side job), Ruthie's response to her quandary reveals her wishes and offers a glimpse of her potential.

Some critics dismiss Weiner reflexively, like the (fictional) fiction editor at the Atlantic who slams the gate shut on Ruthie's early work: "You're obviously a writer, but this isn't quite right for us." In real life, while that magazine's readers talk about Anne-Marie Slaughter's article "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," Weiner offers discourse on the subject in a different form: not theory but the practice of living as a woman, between feminist narratives of empowerment and victimization, in a world where surface beauty shouldn't count so much but damn well does. Conventional wisdom in Hollywood is that "everyone knows the deal out here, and how much of it is luck." Ruthie knows differently, and she seeks to change the system so that a woman doesn't have to be "lucky" to forge her own path.

Weiner, who will read from The Next Best Thing Wednesday night at 7:30 at the Free Library of Philadelphia, writes novels centered in the assumption that women's lives are important — and that women can, as Slaughter implores us to, "stop accepting male behavior and male choices as the default and the ideal." Like her character, Weiner reshapes real-life experience (writing a short-lived sitcom starring Raven-Symoné for ABC Family) to produce a funny and wise story informed by what she has learned and inspired by what could be.

Elizabeth Mosier is the author of "The Playgroup," part of the Gemma Open Door series to promote adult literacy. She teaches creative writing at Bryn Mawr College. www.ElizabethMosier.com.

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