Sleuthing in suburbia
Jennifer Weiner's latest is an absorbing whodunit
Any mother who lives in the suburbs knows about car culture. Strap screaming toddler/infant into minivan/SUV/late-model station wagon, drive 20 minutes to coffee shop/library/play date. Complete errand, then do it all in reverse.
Raising kids in the 'burbs can be an incredibly lonely endeavor. Best-selling author Jennifer Weiner, who burst onto the literary scene in 2001 with Good in Bed, may be a city-dweller herself, but she feels the pain of suburban stay-at-home moms in her new novel, Goodnight Nobody.
After the birth of her daughter (followed in too-rapid succession by twin boys), Kate Klein finds herself transplanted from Manhattan to Upchurch, a Stepford-esque Connecticut town where mothers spend their days making sure their children eat organic snacks, have plenty of enriching social activities and never guess that Mommy is bored out of her mind.
Of course, the town's bucolic charm is disturbed a bit when Kate finds local uber-mom Kitty Cavanaugh stabbed to death in her own kitchen. Missing her old days as a reporter, Kate launches an amateur investigation of the murder and discovers some not-so-wholesome activities going on behind the closed doors of Upchurch.
Although Weiner lives a more urban life with her husband and two-year-old daughter in Philadelphia, she clearly understands the singularly weird culture of one-upsmanship raging among modern middle-class moms. In Goodnight Nobody, she explores that segment of the population in which only the best is good enough for parents worried about getting their child into a top-tier preschool. Weiner is fascinated with how the isolation of the suburbs might feed this phenomenon.
"In the suburbs, you have to get in the car to go anywhere," Weiner says, talking to BookPage while taking a brief break from her current project (potty training her daughter, Lucy Jane). "Social circles can be so much more hierarchical and rigid when you have to plan every outing and get-together."
As someone firmly on the outside of Upchurch's social circle, Kate is the antithesis of her overachieving peers. She fastens her hair with a paper clip from her husband's office when she can't find a barrette, and she is quite certain she will die if she has to play one more game of Candyland.
"Kate is a very extreme example of the dislocation and confusion every new mom goes through," Weiner says. "You can feel your life slipping away a little—maybe not your life, but certainly your autonomy."
With a toddler at home, Weiner knows the effort it takes to juggle a career and kids. She's had to readjust her own life to make time for her writing. A nanny comes in from 1 to 5 p.m. every weekday, while Weiner and her laptop relocate to a coffee shop down the street.
"I'm luckier than probably 99 percent of women anywhere," she notes. "I don't have a boss to deal with, I don't have an office to go to. I have a lot of flexibility and freedom. But still it's not easy. You can't answer e-mail and take care of a two-year-old."
Those afternoons writing in the coffee shop have yielded Goodnight Nobody, which is Weiner's first foray into the mystery genre. Her previous bestsellers, Good In Bed, In Her Shoes (made into a feature film starring Cameron Diaz that hits theaters this month) and Little Earthquakes, feature women facing major turning points in their lives. Weiner found that writing a believable, suspenseful whodunit was a whole different task.
"Mysteries are so plot-driven, whereas my previous books were very character-driven," she says. With a mystery, "you've got to have great characters but also intricacy in the clues and pacing. I probably did more rewriting on this book than the first three put together. It was a very intense year."
Even while changing genres, Weiner continues her tradition of writing smart, funny novels about smart, funny women. She infuses her characters with humor and believable angst, thus earning a place among the queen bees of the so-called chick lit scene, something she's come to accept and even embrace.
"There's nothing wrong with the pink cover with high heels," she says, referring to the glut of pastel-colored books published in recent years that feature lovelorn heroines who tend to shop too much and have really, really awful bosses.
"There are a great many other things in the world I can get outraged about."
But Weiner did wade into the debate a few months ago, after Prep author Curtis Sittenfeld wrote a scathing review of Melissa Bank's The Wonder Spot, deriding it in the New York Times as fluffy chick lit.
Weiner blasted back on her blog, SnarkSpot, charging that the review was a transparent bid by Sittenfeld to position herself as a serious author rather than a mere member of the chick lit brigade.
Weiner wrote: "The more I think about the increasingly angry divide between ladies who write literature and chicks who write chick lit, the more it seems like a grown-up version of the smart versus pretty games of years ago; like so much jockeying for position in the cafeteria and mocking the girls who are nerdier/sluttier/stupider than you to make yourself feel more secure about your own place in the pecking order."
Months later, Weiner still bristles at the idea that any author should "turn up her nose at a whole genre."
"I found it mean-spirited and narrow-minded," she says of Sittenfeld's review. "I almost feel sorry for her. She's alienated a lot of women authors and readers who don't want to be told they're stupid for liking this kind of book."
In the end, though, Weiner's latest work transcends such easy labels. Call it chick lit if you must, but more than anything, Goodnight Nobody is a page-turning mystery that would make the "Desperate Housewives" proud.
Best of all, Weiner bravely goes where few have dared, allowing her character to feel conflicted (with an occasional flicker of full-blown regret) about her new role as full-time mom. An entire nation of chicks will thank her.
Amy Scribner tends to her toddler son in Olympia, Washington.
Author photo by Andrea Cipriani.