With all of the good books I picked out yesterday, I'd like to say that it was hard to choose one to read first. But Jennifer Weiner's Certain Girls is a 7-day book, and I also suspected it'd be a fairly fast read, so that one got the nod. I was right, too: I started the book around 8 or 9 last night and finished it around 4 this afternoon. I should note that, as this is a sequel to Good in Bed, it's not possible to write about this book without throwing in some spoilers from the last. Be on your guard.
The story alternates between the points of view of Cannie, and her now-13-year-old daughter Joy. I was disappointed a bit in Cannie at 40. All of her sharp, funny edges seemed worn off by marriage and motherhood. Her profession is to write a long-running science fiction series under a pseudonym, and she spends the rest of the time grating potatoes for a latke dinner at the synagogue, driving carpool, cooking and baking, etc. She's not as quick to poke fun at the world, and the truly funny scenes are fewer.
When her husband, Dr. Peter Krushelevansky from the last book, suggests finding a surrogate mother and having another baby, Cannie's reaction is extremely strange. She confesses to the reader that she's not all that into it, yet she capitulates to the lengthy, expensive and painful process. It doesn't seem to make so much as a ripple in Cannie's tranquil waters. Instead, she's more concerned with Joy's bat mitzah.
Joy is the real driving force of this story. She's struggling with all of the typical thirteen-year-old stuff, and more. After being the dork with the hearing aids all her life, she has a chance to become popular, although it comes at the expense of her two oldest, closest friends (oddly, Weiner gave her young heroine a Gay Best Friend too), her grades (she quits wearing her hearing aids in school) and her conscience (turns out the popular girls like to shoplift). Since Cannie was never a kewl kid, she's dismayed at some of the more superficial interests Joy is developing, which causes lots and lots of fights.
Joy has also read her mom's novel for the first time, and is shocked, hurt and embarrassed. This is a sort of "meta" plot twist: the book that Cannie wrote is supposed to be the book where we first met her, but fictionalized from what "really" happened in the book that strikes me (from her other works and the little I know of her life) as a fictionalized version of things that actually happened to Jennifer Weiner. Anyway, in that book, Cannie has reinvented herself as an easy girl, and she also makes it clear that Joy was unexpected. These two facts make Joy question everything she thought she knew about her mother, her father and the rest of her family.
All of these tensions come to bear on Joy's bat mitzvah. I was 18 before I met a Jewish person, so I have no firsthand knowlege of this, but apparently bat and bar mitzahs these days rival the Super Sweet 16 parties made famous by MTV. Joy's friends are all having huge parties with hired dancers, expensive custom-made favors, massive guest lists, catered dinners, the works. Cannie thinks these bat mitzahs teach bad values and is determined to make Joy's more traditional. Joy, of course, wants a spaghetti-strap dress and a theme like all of her friends. She also worries about the family involvement portion of it: she has three grandmothers, no grandfathers, two dads and her mom. How is she going to work everyone in? Will there be a lot of tension between her biological dad and her mom? Which of the three grandmothers will have to sit out? Can she maybe produce a grandfather after all, and find out for herself why he's not in her life? She spends most of the book doing a lot of 007 stuff to get the dress she wants, and to find out for herself which portions of her mother's book are truth and which are fiction.
Many of the other supporting characters from the earlier book make an appearance. Cannie's little sister Lucy (now Elle) is back, as is her brother. Their mother is back with a new "life partner" and Cannie's friend Samantha is also back. There are even cameos by Cannie's evil dad, Winona-I-mean-Maxi Ryder, and the Ever Tasteful Audrey (Nifkin, sadly, is seen only in Cannie's memory, having since departed to the Great Dog Park In The Sky. They did get another dog though). It was an enjoyable read, but it tried to do too much. The book would have been much better off without the baby subplot, which never fully gelled. Samantha's scenes felt as superfluous as ever, whereas Lucy/Elle's moments onstage made you want to see more of her.
Last week, for the "Coupling" BTT post, I said that a lot of novels about relationships are one-sided, with the partner standing in for happiness and self-actualization. I was actually thinking of Good in Bed, because Cannie is so interesting and vivid, and both Peter and her ex-boyfriend Bruce are shadowy and ill-defined. This seems more true after reading Cannie's happily-ever-after tale. Peter remains mostly in the shadows as a "wonderful man" who's always there for moral support and idyllic family outings and never makes any real demands, except for the bit about the baby, which never got off the ground as a driving force in the book's plot. In Little Earthquakes and Goodnight Nobody, Weiner has proven that she can write about the challenges of marriage, as the women deal with everything from a possessive mother-in-law to their own personal unhappiness. Cannie and Peter don't even have issues over who takes out the trash, and it made their relationship less real. But the mother-daughter stuff is worth coming for, as well as Elle/Lucy's too-infrequent scenes. It's still not her best book, but Cannie was well-loved by many, and I'm sure her fans are pleased to know how she turned out.