Book chat: ‘Who Do You Love’ by Jennifer Weiner

Who Do You LoveRachel Blum is an 8-year-old heart patient when she first meets Andy Landis at a Florida hospital. Andy arrives alone with a broken arm, capturing Rachel’s attention in the emergency room. She’s searching for a good story to tell an ill friend up on their regular floor, and she finds that — and more — in Andy.

Fast-forwarding nearly a decade, Rachel and Andy meet randomly while volunteering as teens and strike up a summer romance. Though together only a short time, they immediately bond despite their different circumstances. While Rachel grows up in Florida being doted upon in an affluent Jewish family, Andy is a biracial teen being raised by a hardworking, tough-to-please single mother in Philadelphia.

Andy’s solace — his salvation, really — comes through running. At the encouragement of a beloved neighbor and mentor, he survives his rough teen years with an end goal in mind: getting to — and winning at — the Olympics. As Rachel goes to college and pledges an exclusive sorority, Andy devotes his life to becoming a world-class runner.

As time and distance both separate and reunite them, the pair must decide what truly matters in life . . . and if they’re willing to go after it.

Jennifer Weiner’s Who Do You Love is a comfortable, fairly predictable read following two young lovers over the course of three decades. Their chance meeting at a hospital sets them up for a lifetime of serendipitous encounters, only some of which seemed realistic. It’s really a story about first love.

Before I get into the nitty-gritty, I feel the need to extol my love for Jennifer. She creates characters that make you feel, and her stories always suck me in with their casts of relatable — if occasionally frustrating — characters. She has a powerful ability to tap into the inner lives of women, and I greatly admire her ability to produce novels that really stick with you.

So why didn’t this one work for me?

It comes down to narrative voice. Rachel’s sections are told in first-person, allowing us to really get to know her, while Andy’s are third-person omniscient. While I could begin bonding with Rachel, I always felt removed from Andy . . . physically and mentally. His sections lacked soul. I felt as if we were going through the motions — all tell, no show — and couldn’t get excited about his victories nor mourn his failures. I wanted to, but there was just something . . . missing. The only time I really felt anything? When he’s interacting with Mr. Sills, a neighbor who takes Andy under his wing.

While I enjoyed seeing the interesting ways in which Rachel and Andy’s lives intersect, I found Rachel to be a pretty uninspiring heroine. We’re introduced to her as a young girl struggling to get out from under her parents’ anxious gazes, and I thought there was real potential there. Instead, Rachel spends much of the story projecting herself as a whiny sorority girl who doesn’t feel good enough for the Famous Andy Landis. And that got old.

Who Do You Love is not a bad story, but it’s not Weiner at her best. This was a different sort of novel for her: no elaborate cast of female characters; no exploration of friendships or sisterhood. We do get her trademark family dynamics, but it wasn’t enough to save the plot for me. I liked that she was trying something new, but I probably would have enjoyed this story more if it had been told exclusively from Rachel’s point of view. It lacked . . . sparkle. Pizzazz. Not heart, exactly, but warmth.

Will I come back to Jennifer? Absolutely. But if you’re new to her work, I would recommend Good In Bed or All Fall Down instead.

3 out of 5

Pub: 2015 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Complimentary copy provided by publisher for review consideration

Book review: ‘All Fall Down’ by Jennifer Weiner

All Fall DownAs a mother, wife, blogger and daughter, Allison Weiss is well-versed in responsibility. Between her “freelance” (read: time-consuming) gig writing on feminist issues and her adorable but tough young daughter, Allison’s days are a whirlwind of activity . . . and doubt. Though her life looks frame-worthy on the outside — big house in the suburbs; charming journalist husband; funny and independent kid — on the inside? Well, it’s a little more complicated.

As her father begins to succumb to Alzheimer’s and her mother, always aloof, starts to crumble, Allison foists that additional weight on her shoulders. Coupled with increasing online notoriety and distance from her husband, the pressure Allison feels to hold up her family begins to crack her facade. If she pops a few pain pills, remnants from an old Zumba injury, who is she really hurting? The meds make her feel calm, confident, in control. Drugs — prescription drugs, she always notes — erase the self-doubt that plagues her; they make her stronger. Better.

And so it goes . . . for a while. But when Allison’s life begins to veer uncontrollably, casting her into greater shadows as everything unravels, can she cope?

Jennifer Weiner’s All Fall Down is arguably the grittiest of her works to date. Don’t get me wrong: Allison is still the funny, strong heroine I’ve come to expect from one of my favorite authors, but it deals with some pretty complex and frightening issues. That’s what makes it so startling: Allison is an Everywoman. She has her problems, sure, but they’re nothing beyond the scope of what many women deal with every day. She admits this herself.

But her manner of coping . . .

In spending time with All Fall Down, one can’t help but realize we’re all addicted to something. Beyond obvious issues like alcohol and drug abuse, how many of us haven’t zoned out with a bag of cookies? Or an hour on Facebook? Or a Zulily shopping spree (free shipping until midnight!)? We all have our coping mechanisms, our ways of tuning out the stresses of the day to finally find some measure of peace.

Allison’s method happens to be destructive, nearly costing her everything she loves and holds dear. Just because she doesn’t follow the “typical” stereotype of a drug addict doesn’t mean she isn’t one, and I found her path to acceptance realistic and heartbreaking. She’s a little damaged on the inside, but who isn’t? Her descent into dependence is gradual enough that she doesn’t notice, and that’s what made it so chilling.

Despite its heavy subject matter, I couldn’t help whipping through Allison’s story. The descriptions of her battles with Eloise, her sweet but spirited daughter, made my heart race; her recollections of growing up with an emotionally unavailable mother were so painful. As she reaches out to her husband and receives little support in return, I really hurt for her. And the scenes and memories of her dad had me in tears.

Obviously the stresses compound to the point that she’s relying on narcotics just to function day-to-day, and she can’t keep her secrets — all fall down — forever. As everything began to crumble, I wanted to help. Do something. I felt like screaming at the characters to see what was happening, and the critical juncture at which someone notices what’s happening came as a serious relief to me.

Fast-paced and engrossing, All Fall Down is another winner from Weiner. Unlike her other novels, which tend to follow a variety of women linked by a common thread, Allison is our sole focus — and that worked really well for me. I read this book on vacation in California and couldn’t wait to retreat to our cabin to get a few more snippets before bed. Satisfying and thought-provoking, it’s a story I won’t soon forget.

4 out of 5!

Pub: June 17, 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Digital review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘Then Came You’ by Jennifer Weiner

Four women, one pursuit of happiness.

Beautiful Jules, a senior at Princeton, only wants her alcoholic father to get help — and return to the respectable, successful teacher their community knew and loved. Without the funds to enroll him in a rehab program, Jules begrudgingly accepts an offer to donate her eggs to an infertile couple. She thinks it won’t bother her, the idea of a miniature half-Jules running around in the world, but sometimes closed doors don’t stay closed . . .

Annie, a sweet 24-year-old with two young boys, hates seeing her husband struggle to pay the monthly bills with their combined meager incomes — and views surrogacy as a means to give her family the stability they desperately crave. On the surface, carrying another couple’s baby doesn’t seem like a struggle; after all, she has children of her own. And the winter coats that money could buy . . .

Young, successful and single, Bettina is used to others noticing her last name first — comes with being the progeny of a New York billionaire, after all. After her parents’ divorce, Bettina worries endlessly over Marcus, her distinguished father — especially when he shows up with India, a gorgeous woman many years his junior. Convinced there’s more to India than her polished facade, Bettina does some digging . . . and comes up with more information than she bargained for. And when Marcus and India talk about having a child together, they’re set on a collision course no one could have predicted.

Jennifer Weiner’s Then Came You is a fascinating web of interlocking stories, uniting four women who have little in common superficially but are linked by one big thing someone. In true Weiner style, the author envelopes us in the worlds of four characters and unites them just as the drama reaches a fever pitch. Interesting and often heartbreaking, Then Came You is also a testament to the bonds of family.

Of the many varied characters, I liked — and most felt for — Annie. A working-class mom tired of seeing her husband’s hunched shoulders and defeated expression, she’s determined to better their situation — and she sees surrogacy as a means to a leg-up. What she doesn’t predict is the rejection and skepticism in her own extended family, and the coldness she experiences in her own house. My heart broke for her as she struggled under the weight of her irreversible decision, and I wished others had shown some compassion. What she was doing was really noble, honestly, and I’d never considered the emotional ramifications of surrogacy quite as much as I did after finishing this book.

India herself was an enigma. Weiner slowly feeds us her story, giving bits and pieces of her broken past, and I found her reinvention fascinating. On the whole, though, I never felt like I really got to know her. Did she really love Marcus? Was he just a golden ticket to a better life? Even after finishing Then Came You, I don’t feel I can answer that. The hopeless romantic in me wants to believe she didn’t see him merely as a gravy train to the pampered life, but I don’t know if that’s true. She had a chip on her shoulder, a sense of entitlement — and though she believed she’d have to work for what she wanted, snagging Marcus’ interest seemed like a “reward” for how hard she worked to distance herself from a torrid past. That’s not love to me.

Though a bit predictable, I got very engrossed in Weiner’s family dynamics and read the book quickly. Jules was an interesting character, and I appreciated that Weiner took a different route with her . . . and didn’t play up certain facets of her life. Though it could have, her love life didn’t take center stage, and I thought her struggles with her father’s addiction were heartfelt and realistic. And though Bettina seemed like a hard-nosed, nosy harpy at points, I understood where she was coming from — and can’t say I wouldn’t have acted similarly in her situation. And when she steps up to the plate, she steps up big.

Fans of contemporary fiction, women’s fiction, family dynamics and stories of adoption will find plenty to enjoy in Then Came You. Weiner’s hallmark is her ability to present multiple women in sympathetic, unique lights, and to demonstrate how the bonds of female friendship and camaraderie can get us through most anything. She rarely fails to present interesting, dynamic women who bust stereotypes, and that’s what makes her one of my favorite authors.

3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 1451617739 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review

Ready for a Jennifer-filled summer

I’m back from New York City! What a weekend. A full report (complete with plenty of photos) will be coming your way tomorrow, but until then . . .

I was reading chick lit long before I ever knew it was chick lit. In my late teens, authors like Jennifer Weiner accompanied me through the murky waters of starting college, beginning and ending relationships and figuring out what I wanted to do with my life.

Novels like Weiner’s Good In Bed (not quite what it sounds like!) gave me perspective in some messy personal situations, and I’ve closely followed her work since I first stumbled across one of her books in an old Waldenbooks (remember those?). A coworker had recommended her work when I was searching for a “must read” author, and she didn’t steer me wrong.

When I really love an author, nothing excites me more than a new release on the calendar — and Jennifer rarely lets us down. Though recent releases like Best Friends Forever didn’t have quite grab me like earlier favorites, I’m always eager to see what she’s out with next. Her most recent book, Then Came You, will be released in paperback tomorrow — May 8. Also out tomorrow is Swim, a new ebook short story available for free to all you lucky ducks with e-readers. And the schmucks like me, trying to read via the Kindle app on my iPhone. (It’s so tiny.)

Years back, I met Jennifer at a signing in Virginia — and she couldn’t have been funnier or more gracious. Filled mostly with women and the occasional boyfriend (including my own brave guy), Jennifer’s audience was captivated by her anecdotes and stood patiently to have their books signed. I brought along my original copy of Good In Bed to grab her signature, which is now in a place of honor in my bookcase.

Jennifer will be touring again in support of her next release, The Next Best Thing, out July 3. See if she’s coming to a city near you! (And if you’re in New York City, don’t miss her team-up with Jen Lancaster in June. Jealous.)

Book review: ‘Fly Away Home’ by Jennifer Weiner

Sylvie Serfer Woodruff — respected politician’s wife; mother of two; watcher of weight — knows she’s become a walking prop when news of her husband’s infidelity reaches the national news. Senator Richard Woodruff had a liason with a woman who could be his daughter, true, and Sylvie takes the news as well as could be expected — which means, in this case, that she retreats inward.

Her life, Sylvie soon realizes, has been reduced to organizing Richard’s life. He’s a grown man who expects his wife to stand in line at a hotel breakfast bar to gather his eggs and toast. Sylvie tends to Richard’s needs as one would look after a child — maybe in a way she didn’t look after her own. Seeking asylum for the chaos that has taken over her marriage, sustained for more than three decades, Sylvie escapes to Connecticut, where she begins to clean and restore the Serfer family’s beach house.

Diana and Lizzie, the Woodruff sisters, are living opposite lives when news of the scandal breaks. Married with a young son, Diana is a doctor trapped in a loveless marriage — and seeking comfort where she can. Lizzie, a recovering addict, is struggling to renew her passion for something she once cherished: photography. The summer takes Lizzie to her sister’s home in Washington, D.C., where she looks after Milo, Diana’s son . . . until the secrets in Diana’s home threaten to level the place. And getting away from it all seems like the next logical step.

Jennifer Weiner’s Fly Away Home is a look at a political family that could be yours, or mine — and that’s what I loved about it. Beyond being the daughters of a powerful politician, Diana and Lizzie — who often feel like the novel’s real focus — were multi-dimensional characters. Sylvie, too, felt like a friend — a woman with whom I could relate, and a woman I would have been happy to know.

Whether we’re talking John Edwards or Bill Clinton, Larry Craig or “The Good Wife,” our news — and popular culture — are rife with the sexual indiscretions of those in power. It’s amazing how one act can shatter so many lives and threaten to bring down whole political dynasties. Richard Woodruff is fictional, sure, but he could just as easily be an Eliot Spitzer. As a reader, Richard’s troubles were an all-too-familiar trope; basically, I felt like I’d heard this all before. As such, I found myself skimming through the opening — just a little, just a little! — and focusing more on Sylvie’s reaction to everything, which was much more interesting to me.

Yes, the Woodruff women are the novel’s real focus: who they are, how they became that way. I loved that Sylvie was the daughter of Selma Serfer, a hard-nosed, fast-talking judge, and that Selma didn’t hesitate to question the way Sylvie was living her life. More than anything, the book felt like the renaissance of Sylvie Serfer — a way of rising from the robotic depths of her life.

Diana and Lizzie were quite complicated, too. Of all the characters, I fell right in step with Lizzie — a 24-year-old woman in recovery, the spoiled youngest child accustomed to humiliating her family as she stood in the shadows of big sister Diana. It felt a bit cliched to have the girls fit such roles, I guess, but it didn’t bother me — mostly because I was moving through the plot so quickly. Learning about the deterioriation of Diana’s marriage was sad but interesting, and I loved the parallel between the wrongs she’d committed and her father’s own bad decisions. It added a totally different dimension to the story.

Weiner took on a very heavy subject — and a well-worn one — and still produced a fascinating, memorable book. I would have loved to know more about Jeff, Lizzie’s love interest, and Milo, Diana’s son, but these are minor quibbles — especially in light of how much I loved the dynamics between Sylvie and her mother as well as Diana and Lizzie. After being disappointed by 2009’s Best Friends Forever, I’m glad to see Weiner is back to crafting entertaining, vivid character studies of loveable, complicated women. Fans of women’s fiction, contemporary fiction and the effervescent Weiner shouldn’t miss this one.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0805090819 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publicist

Getting cupcakes with Jennifer Weiner

Y’all might remember that little ol’ Pioneer Woman signing we attended in May — the one where we stood in line for four hours (four. hours.) to meet Ree Drummond. That was fun, sure, but the whole waiting in line forever thing sort of made me nervous for last night.

Because I asked Spencer to go with me to another signing. And, like last time, it was filled with ladies and hardly a gentleman in sight — all there for Jennifer Weiner! Good sport that he is, Spence agreed to accompany me — and we didn’t have nearly the issues (or the wait) for this one.

I’ve been a huge fan of Weiner’s since the days of Good In Bed, her debut novel — which isn’t exactly what it sounds like, but also sort of is. (You know, what it sounds like.) She’s an incredibly funny, talented writer — and, as it turns out, an incredibly funny and sweet woman. I would expect nothing less from an author I’ve adored for so long! (Her novel Little Earthquakes is also a favorite, and the first book I reviewed here on write meg!)

Spencer and I arrived in Bailey’s Crossroads, Va., and grabbed dinner at a lovely French cafe, La Madeleine. We waltzed into Borders at 7 p.m. for the 7:30 p.m. event only to find most of the seats already taken! We secured one chair and grabbed cupcakes, most of which were also gone. That crowd of 150 people, if I had to guess, was hungry! And excited. The room was buzzing with chatter.

Jennifer took to the podium at 7:30 p.m. to the grand applause of the room, and she spoke for almost an hour. If this whole writing-books thing doesn’t work, I’m pretty sure Weiner could have a career as a stand-up comedian. She came across as confident, comfortable, down-to-earth and hilarious, sharing anecdotes about her mother meeting Rosie O’Donnell — and all the antics that ensued. Despite the fact that Jennifer can easily pepper a conversation with statements like, “When I was on ‘The Rachael Ray Show’ . . .,” she seems the opposite of snobby or rude. I loved listening to her share thoughts on “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” (love those shows like crack), just as she does on Twitter, and take questions from the audience.

After the Q&A portion, Spencer and I sat down to relax and wait for our turn to meet Jennifer. After a little bit, I was spotted by sharp-eyed Melissa of Chick Lit Central and loved chatting with her! So fun to meet other bloggers, especially when it’s random. Melissa introduced me to author Sarah Pekkanen, too, and I can’t wait to read her book — it’s been on my bookshelves for a while.

Meeting Jennifer was incredibly fun, though I became uncharacteristically nervous as we drew closer in line. Normally chattering like a monkey isn’t an issue for me, but I did get a bit starstruck — until Jennifer smiled and opened up the conversation. I remember her asking me about what I was reading this summer and I froze. I only read about a hundred billion books a year, but wouldn’t you know I couldn’t think of a single book I was reading right now? Besides, you know, hers. (I eventually mentioned Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay, because who isn’t psyched for that?! It’s on my calendar.) She signed my books — I’d brought Good In Bed, my favorite, and my ARC of Fly Away Home — and Spencer snapped some photos for us. (More are available on my Flickr page.)

All in all, another wonderful author experience! As I once heard someone say, authors are the “rock stars” of the literary world — and meeting them is definitely a celebrity experience. I’m so glad Jennifer comes across as fun and warm in person as she does in her novels — all of which I’ll continue to read for a long, long time.

Jennifer Weiner is on her Cupcakes Across America Book Tour now through August. See if she’s coming to a city near you!

Book review: ‘Best Friends Forever’ by Jennifer Weiner

Life for Addie Downs — overweight, from a weird family — changed dramatically the day Valerie Adler showed up on her small street in Illinois. The two young girls, misfits in their own ways, became fast friends — and stayed together through the teasing and taunts they endured, relying on one another for support.

Until one night in high school.

Jennifer Weiner’s Best Friends Forever opens as the ladies, now in their thirties, reunite following a high school reunion. Needless to say, Addie wasn’t interested in attending. Though she’s since shed an enormous amount of weight, she’s still guarded and sequestered in her childhood home — empty save her since her parents’ deaths many years before. A successful artist, Addie has made a small fortune painting art for greeting cards and nursed a quiet, ill-fated love affair in the time Valerie has been gone.

Val, conversely, is just as loud, quirky and brash as ever — and is now a fixture on the news in Chicago, where she’s an on-air weather personality. Since the time she turned her back on Addie and escaped Pleasant Ridge, she’s worked to put the past behind her — including a sordid one involving Dan Swansea, their school’s golden boy. Following the reunion and too many drinks, Val decides to seek revenge on the man who helped wreck her friendship with Addie — and try to find a little solace for herself. But she just might need Addie’s help to do it.

As a tremendous Weiner fan who loved Good In Bed and Little Earthquakes, one of the first novels I ever reviewed on write meg!, I had very high hopes going into this story — despite the silly title. (C’mon, you know it’s a little kitschy.) And while I wasn’t bowled over or even won over by any of these characters, Best Friends Forever is a fast-paced novel with a mystery and family drama at its core . . . and that’s enough to keep me turning the pages.

The novel’s strength came from the detailed flashbacks making us privvy to the mostly-happy childhood Addie enjoyed — which came in sharp contrast to that of Val, whose free-spirited and irresponsible mother, Naomi, failed to provide the stability and comfort she desperately wanted. And saw across the street, at the Downs’ home.

Many reviews I’ve read lately question why, after all this time, Addie would open her arms to a crumpled Val and offer to help her. Val publicly betrayed, then abandoned her best friend in high school — some of the most formative, and painful, years for anyone to overcome. Since Val was such a raging jerk, why would adult Addie welcome such a menace back into her life?

To which I answer: because she was lonely. Since Val disappeared and Addie was left alone with her grief over the quick passing of both her parents and an accident which left her brother severely brain damaged, she’s had no one — hardly a friend, definitely not a lover. And Val reminds her of the feeling of belonging that was once so strong. When her old friend blows back into her life like a tornado, the promise of friendship and comfort is intoxicating. Addie can’t resist.

At its heart, for me, Best Friends Forever was definitely about loneliness — and was, in turn, a lonely story. Not the funny, quick-witted Weiner we’re used to — and definitely not a humorous, light-hearted tale. The novel was shockingly dark and twisty with plenty of uncomfortable developments and, as a reader, I found myself wrinkling my nose a time or two.

For all her preening and selfishness, Val wasn’t particularly likeable — and for her tendency to be a pushover with tons of pain, Addie wasn’t endearing, either. But there was something about the book — something — that kept me engaged. Maybe it was the unconventional structure, skipping through time and filling us in on the past in scraps. Maybe it was the rollicking ride of the mystery. Maybe it was the idea of Val “repenting” and making up to Addie the hurtful things she’d done.

Whatever it was, I barely paused as I tore through Weiner’s latest book, out in paperback on May 4. I just wish it had a little more heart.

3 out of 5!

ISBN: 0385532520 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publicist