The Guy Not Taken
Jennifer Weiner, bestselling author of GOOD IN BED and IN HER SHOES, handpicks some of her short stories --- some old, some new --- in this collection of short fiction. Usual themes of dissected families, marriage and children are all here, and it soon becomes apparent the reason for Weiner's incredible popularity --- her likeable voice. She's your best friend, sister, college roommate and co-worker, with real issues of insecurity and self-doubt. And as evidenced in these stories, she has always possessed this talent. These 11 pieces, written at different points in her career, all enjoy something relatable, which will delight fans of her earlier books and certainly garner new ones.
The first three stories ("Just Desserts," "Travels with Nicki" and "The Wedding Bed") all feature the lead character, Josie, and her eccentric family --- a family in transition. "Just Desserts" explores the fallout after their distant father leaves the family after months of simmering tension. Their mother retreats to their outdoor swimming pool, swimming endless laps to escape the sadness: "I had heard them fighting at night, his hissing whispers and her tears, and I knew that for the last month he'd come home late, and for the last week, not at all, but I'd been telling myself I was worrying about nothing, that they were just going through a rough patch, that things were going to be fine." It culminates with the remaining family sculpting replicas of themselves out of ice cream and our narrator vociferously choking down every last morsel. Sometimes you have to first tear down in order to rebuild.
In "Travels with Nicki," our heroine Josie accompanies her sister to Florida to join the rest of their family at their grandmother's condo. Nicki spends most of the time bemoaning an imagined kidney infection when she's not working on her tan or contemplating dropping out of college. In "The Wedding Bed" Josie is preparing for her wedding when she gets some unexpected interlopers into her bridal suite on the eve of her wedding. What should have been a night of solitary reflection turns into a teenage sleepover with her raucous sister and brother. Although it's not what Josie had in mind, she wouldn't have it any other way.
"Swim" is the heart-wrenching story of a young woman, disfigured by a brutal accident in childhood that claimed the lives of her parents, who has retreated into a life of solitary routine. She used to be a writer on a top TV show, but when she gets jilted by her writing partner, she recoils from life, content to spend most nights swimming laps in her health club pool. (Swimming as means of a safe haven is a big theme for Weiner.) When she begins to help a handsome stranger rewrite his personal ad, we see glimmers of what used to be. Will she be able to recapture her long-since shuttered love of life?
The title story, which was originally published in Glamour magazine in 2005, is a new twist on the "you-don't-know-what-you've-got-till-it's-gone" theme. New wife and mother Marlie Davidow is trying to reconcile her single self with her many new responsibilities. When she comes across her old slacker boyfriend's wedding registry, as a lark, she replaces the bride's name with her own. When she wakes up, she discovers that her whole life (or what she knew as her life) has changed. She's engaged to her old boyfriend and doesn't have a child (or stretch marks, for that matter). She's living a new life --- what her life could have been had she stayed with her old boyfriend. But Marlie soon discovers that the proverbial grass is always greener. Despite the sleep deprivation, her workaholic and sometimes forgetful husband, and even those stretch marks, her old life was worth it.
These 11 stories aptly demonstrate how deftly Weiner can transcend the normally limiting moniker of "chick-lit." Her characters are flesh-and-blood people, with flesh-and-blood problems. They navigate the everyday terrain that we all traverse and usually do so with self-deprecating humor. And to further the point of the author's likeability, she even includes her own notes on the stories --- explaining how and when she wrote each --- to wonderfully round out each narrative. If only every writer would do that.
Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on January 22, 2011