Friday, September 4, 2009

Book Review: Little Earthquakes, by Jennifer Weiner

Little Earthquakes, by Jennifer Weiner

You know how we all know that person living the exact life that you've always imagined and dreamed about for yourself?

And you know how you kind of don't want to like that person ... but then you meet them and talk to them? And then you like them more than you thought you would? And then you find yourself thinking, wow, this person is really kind of cool and I could totally see myself being friends with her?

That would be what Jennifer Weiner is to me.

And to what the characters in her novel, Little Earthquakes, are to each other.

For starters, Jennifer and I are both Philly girls. I've followed Ms. Weiner's career since she was a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter. Read her columns religiously. Even clipped a few of them, back in the day when people did such things. Looked on more than a little wistfully (and OK, I admit it, a tinge of jealousy) when she published her first book, then another and another and another, and had movie deals come her way. That, I thought, was the life I'd always wanted.

But because I'm not a fan of chick-lit, I never read any of her books. Not when I bought them from book sales and thrift shops. Not even after I met Ms. Weiner herself at a luncheon several years ago, where we chatted and laughed briefly as she graciously signed all her books I never read.

(How cool is that? That makes me grin every time I see that.)

So I saw the audio of Little Earthquakes on the library shelf and thought this would make a nice, light listen for my commute to work after vacation.

And wouldn't you know it, I wound up liking this a little more than I expected. For the most part. So, given that we are at the end of summer (boo, hoo, hoo) this Labor Day weekend, and if you're looking for a light read and enjoy such fare, consider Little Earthquakes.

Little Earthquakes is the story of three women, all new moms, living in Philadelphia and its suburbs: Ayinde, the former reporter and current wife of a famous, wealthy Philadelphia Sixers basketball player (think Allen Iverson); Kelly, an events planner and wife to Steve; and Becky, restauranteur and wife to physician Andrew. And Lia, a Philly native turned Hollywood actress, struggling to make sense of a seismic, off-the-Richter-scale, earth-shattering loss of her own.

First thing that captured my attention was this: Jennifer Weiner knows Philadelphia, and it shows.

"It felt like the red Kia I'd rented was driving itself - out I-95, past the Franklin Mills Mall, its parking lot packed as usual, past the sprawl of chain restaurants and cheap apartment complexes with RENT ME NOW banners flapping limply about the trash-littered ditches. Left onto Byberry, across the Boulevard, left and right and left again, the rented car's wheels turning over streets that felt smaller and dimmer than they had when I'd lived here. The aluminum siding on the small ranch houses and even the asphalt on my street had faded and the houses themselves seemed to have shrunk in the shadows of the trees, which had gotten taller."
Weiner knows the pockets of neighborhoods comprising Philadelphia and its environs, and details such as how if one lives in Somerton, you attend George Washington High School. I loved this about Little Earthquakes.

Conversely, I was a little perplexed at Weiner's treatment of Ocean City, New Jersey. One character, Kelly, hails from what is portrayed in Little Earthquakes as a dumpy seaside town. Having spent a number of summers in Ocean City and knowing the town as well as any born-and-bred Philly tourist/shoobie, I thought Weiner did OCNJ somewhat of a disservice. (It's also kind of ironic; in August 2005, Weiner did an interview promoting Little Earthquakes on Ocean City's famed Music Pier. For the uninitiated, OCNJ is a great family town with an awesome boardwalk and yeah, it probably has its pockets of problems like anyplace else, but I really thought the town's fault lines were hammered home too much in Little Earthquakes for no apparent reason.)

More substantially, I really liked how Little Earthquakes showed how the influences and actions of one's own mother carries over into relationships with one's children, especially in the thrall of new motherhood. Each of the characters in the story has issues - boy, do they have issues! - with their own mothers and mothers-in-law. Watching how their interactions with their children mirror those of their own experience was an interesting dimension to this book that I wasn't expecting.

I also thought Jennifer Weiner captured the jolting reality of new motherhood extremely well. As expectant parents, we expect carefree days of running through meadows a la laundry detergent and deodorant commercials, delighting in our children's discoveries of butterflies and grasshoppers. To be sure, there are a few of those moments in motherhood, but they are eclipsed by the not-so-carefree moments, especially when the need to work is thrown into the mix or a child has health problems or a marriage is on the rocks - all of which are plotlines in Little Earthquakes.

At the same time, however, in doing so there were several plotlines that felt too long, too predictable or neatly-done, and laden with too much whining. In particular, the character of Kelly was beyond annoying and that storyline dragged in parts. I could appreciate that she had a tough childhood, but I found myself wanting to tell her to get some therapy already. Spend a few bucks on a couple sessions with a good psychologist instead of decorating the nursery to match the pages of a magazine. I do think that was intentional, that this may have been the reaction Weiner seeks from readers.

That realistic aspect of the first year of motherhood is what I enjoyed most about this story. As a mom nearly 8 years removed from these dark days, I liked that Weiner didn't sugar-coat the realities of this time. I also think this would be a good book for new moms to read - if they have time to read - because there is much to commiserate about in this. It has the element of talking and listening to a good friend, someone who has indeed been-there-and-done-that, and in most cases, is right there and doing that with you.

Little Earthquakes illustrates to me the conundrum that we book bloggers sometimes face in assigning ratings to books we review, because this is a hard one for me to rate. I didn't dislike this book nor was it the most incredible read ever. I'm not a chick-lit kind of girl; I'm probably good for one chick-litty story a year, if that. So based on that, I'd be giving this a 3 (which might make you dismiss this as not worthy ... but maybe it is something you'd like) but I'm not the target audience, so is that really fair? And then there's the fact that in this case, I was Weiner's intended reader, one looking specifically for a breezy, light read, one that really didn't use up all the precious few maternal brain cells I have left - and Little Earthquakes fits the bill beautifully, so I could justify a higher rating based on that criteria, as well as for the accuracy and details of the setting.

What to do, what to do? Just because I liked parts of it or didn't like parts of it doesn't mean you will or won't. In this case - like in motherhood itself, take a deep breath, quit agonizing, forego the comparisons and how we stack up against others and enjoy Little Earthquakes for what it is; like motherhood (and life) itself, a trip through the good, the not-so-good, the parts we love and the parts we wish away, the delight along with the drool. The lessons and understandings that come along with an occasional pothole-laden (OK, in Philly, more than an occasional pothole) jolt along the Roosevelt Boulevard of our lives.

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