fiction

Mrs. Everything- Jennifer Weiner

There’s been a huge amount of buzz about Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner (Atria Books, 2019), and, having read six of her other books in the past, I knew I’d eventually get to this one! And as luck would have it, it came up as a suggestion for PopSugar’s 2020 Reading Challenge for a book that passes the Bechdel test (wherein two women must have a conversation which is about something other than a man, and which was named after the cartoonist and writer Alison Bechdel, a fact I didn’t know about until just now!). This book passes that test in spades and is an all-around fabulous read.

Mrs. Everything covers the entire lives of sisters Jo and Bethie Kaufman, born in the baby boom of post-WWII America and coming of age in the turbulent 60’s as the world writhed and changed around them. Jo, the elder of the two, is athletic, always at odds with their mother, and understands early on that she’s different from other girls. Bethie, a people pleaser and their mother’s clear favorite, changes trajectory after the terrible aftermath of death of their father and struggles to find herself and her place in the world. The sisters’ relationship ebbs and flows, internal and external pressures playing a large part on how they relate to and support one another. This is an opus, a love letter to all the women out there who do their best and can only try, fail, and try again.

(Content warnings exist for molestation by a family member, rape, abortion, drug use, homophobia, disordered eating, difficult parent/child relationships, cancer, and death.)

There are a lot of themes running throughout this book, and one of them is the changing role of women in society over the years. Jo and Bethie’s mother had almost no choices in life; Jo and Bethie had more, but still nowhere near acceptable; Jo’s daughters have far more, but it’s still not enough, and the novel ends acknowledging that while women have come so far, it’s absolutely not enough, that men are given passes in parenting and the career world that women aren’t even thought of being granted. Jo makes an astute observation that both she and Bethie kind of fell into their lives, rather than making active choices to create the lives they wanted, and I have to wonder how true that statement is for women in general today. It certainly was for me.

There’s a lot of sadness in this book, as there is in everyone’s life. Jo, whose attraction to women can’t ever really be lived out in the open in her young adulthood, lives what feels like only a half-life, struggling to find a place for herself while taking care of her beloved children and the husband who, as time goes on, feels like less and less of a safe haven. Bethie’s entire self nearly disappears after being molested and raped, and she flits around the world, trying to both lose and discover herself and realizing she can’t run from her pain, nor can she force her sister to live more authentically. It’s all one step forward, two steps back for the Kaufman sisters, a tale as old as time and one that we’re still seeing today.

Despite the sadness, this is a view of two very different lives over a turbulent period of time, a time of growth and a time of difficult realizations. Jennifer Weiner writes with clarity and insight, and even when the subject manner is painful, her tone is light enough that Mrs. Everything is a comfort read, like hearing stories from your own beloved friends and sisters. This was the perfect book to follow up my last read, Dahlia Adler’s His Hideous Heart, an anthology of Poe retellings. I desperately needed something that made me feel hope again, and this fit the bill well.

Have you read this or any of Jennifer Weiner’s other novels? Are you a fan? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Visit Jennifer Weiner’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction

Dating by the Book- Mary Ann Marlowe

Diving into a new book by an author you’ve read and enjoyed in the past is like coming home, getting out of your uncomfortable work clothes, and putting on your favorite pair of sweats and a pair of fuzzy slippers. It’s cozy, it’s relaxing, it’s just what you’ve been dreaming about all day long. That’s how I felt about finally being able to dive into Dating by the Book by Mary Ann Marlowe (Kensington, 2019). This book went on my TBR list long before its release date, since I had read Ms. Marlowe’s A Crazy Kind of Love and very much enjoyed it, then subsequently followed her on Twitter and very much enjoyed her as a person as well. Dating by the Book came out in June, but it was available only at the library in the next town, and finally, finally things matched up so that the book was available there and I needed books! (Of course, as soon as I got all those books home that I checked out, literally everything I’d requested via interlibrary loan, even the book I suggested my library BUY and that I wasn’t expecting them to get in until at least January, came in at the same time, so now I’m entirely swamped. Best problem in the world, right?)

Maddie’s a struggling bookstore owner (is there any other kind?) whose problems don’t only stem from the shop, her favorite childhood store which she bought from the deceased owner’s son, and which she’s desperately trying to keep afloat in her tiny hometown. Her own book, the one she actually wrote herself, is due to be released soon, and she’s both excited and nervous. Six months ago, however, her fiancé didn’t show up at their wedding, and Maddie’s still stinging over Peter’s betrayal. She hasn’t been able to date yet, but things may be changing…or at least, Maddie’s trying to change them. Her old boyfriend-turned-rock star is back in town for a bit, attending her store’s book club, and beyond him, there may be sparks with Charlie, another book club member and regular customer. But none with Max- NONE, DID YOU HEAR THAT- her best friend’s brother and Maddie’s childhood friend (whom she once kissed, but nevermind that either), who keeps trying to squeeze his way into her business and her life.

When a three-star review of an early copy of Maddie’s novel hits a nerve, she finds herself unable to walk away and writes the reviewer, a male blogger who goes by the moniker ‘Silver Fox’ an irate (and also drunken) response. Thus begins a correspondence that slowly turns into friendship. Maddie’s able to be more open and honest with Silver Fox than anyone in her life, and his tough questions and commentaries (along with what she’s been learning about her ex-fiancé, who’s still part owner in her struggling bookstore) have her questioning her life choices. The drama is high, both in regards to Maddie’s love life and the dilemma of her barely-limping-along store, but when Silver Fox’s true identity comes out, Maddie will realize what it is she’s really been wanting- and needing- all this time.

Maddie’s far from a tragic figure, but she’s majorly down on her luck at this moment in time, and thus she makes for an easy character to root for. She’s also easy to identify with- how many of us have followed a dream or two, only to have them backfire on us? Ms. Marlowe’s style is so friendly, so easily readable, that reading Maddie’s words were like listening to an old friend chat. And with the book centering around Maddie’s bookstore and book club, literary references and conversations abound. Book lovers rejoice!

I had to laugh when I turned to the page where Maddie goes full-on Author Behaving Badly and types out a drunken hate-mail to Silver Fox when he picks apart her novel on his book blog. In that moment, she’s the epitome of What Not To Do to a book blogger, and it’s obvious that Ms. Malone has done her research and kept her ear to the ground in terms of author-blogger drama (well done!). Maddie’s response is a total cringefest, which made it super fun to read, being on the Silver Fox side of things (I haven’t received hate mail, fortunately, but I’ve received author comments on negative reviews in the past, and that’s uncomfortable enough). It had been so long since I’d added the book to my TBR that I’d forgotten there was a blogger component at all (although Ms. Marlowe does mention us in the dedications! See photo below), so this was a seriously fun surprise.

Maddie’s a little confused, romantically, about what she wants and where she should end up, ping-ponging back and forth between her attraction to different guys. While this did bother me initially, the more I thought about it, it makes sense. Maddie’s trying to rebuild emotionally after having what she thought was her perfect future crushed to bits. Everything had been mapped out perfectly (or what she’d thought of as perfectly at the time), and when Peter didn’t show up at their wedding and subsequently moved back to the city, leaving her to struggle with the bookstore alone, everything that she thought had been set in store became far more precarious. Add this to the fact that Maddie’s been looking for a place to belong since she was young. Adopted by a couple where the father died almost immediately after she joined them, Maddie spent a lot of her childhood at the neighbor’s, a warm, welcoming family who made her feel at home (her mother does make appearances in the book and is a lovely character. She and Maddie have a great relationship, but obviously Mom hadn’t expected to be raising her as a single mother). She’s trying to figure out what she wants and is viewing the men in her life as stand-ins for the male romantic leads in the books she loves, but at this point, it’s a distractionary technique in order to avoid taking a harder look at what Peter’s destruction has wrought upon her life, what his control and manipulation did to her, and what she truly wants and needs.

Maddie returned to live in her hometown as an adult, and with the exception of one character, the town seems to have aged particularly gracefully, something I appreciated, because I cannot say about my own hometown; my best friend and I have discussed whether the people there were always terrible or if that’s been a new development. After close scrutiny, it’s easy to see that the racism and misogyny was always there and we weren’t always aware enough as young children to see it for what it was. It’s just more obvious these days thanks to social media. Maddie’s hometown, however, is home, warm and friendly and supportive. It plays a huge part in the conflict between Maddie and her ex, so the town being as accessible and welcoming as it is makes it a lot easier to root for Maddie despite her yikes-please-don’t-hit-send behavior with Silver Fox.

There are shades of You’ve Got Mail, the Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan rom cot set in a book shop and over email, so if you’re a fan, Dating by the Book may be right up your alley. Reviews are mixed on Goodreads; some people thought Maddie was too passive, others found her selfish (if you can’t be a little selfish after being dumped at the altar, when can you be?), while still others wanted more from the male characters. For me, this worked just fine, and it was a nice, light read. Every book isn’t right for every reader, and that’s okay! 🙂

Check out Mary Ann Marlowe’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · romantic comedy

Waiting for Tom Hanks- Kerry Winfrey

Contemporary romance rooted in romantic comedies of the 1980’s and ’90’s? Sign. Me. Up.

I requested Waiting for Tom Hanks by Kerry Winfrey (Berkley, 2019) from the library the second it became available and I was still the second person in line…which was okay, because I had a stack of other books to read first, but wouldn’t you know, it became available on the Thursday of our vacation, when we wouldn’t return until Monday. But you better believe that as soon as we got home and I unpacked the bathroom bag and started our laundry, I was at the library, picking this up.

I realize I may have a problem.

Annie is twenty-seven, a freelance-writing loner who still lives in her childhood home with the nerdy Dungeons-and-Dragons-obsessed uncle who finished raising her after her parents died early, one after the other. The romantic comedies her mother raised her on are still front and center in her own heart; they are, in fact, the only action she’s getting these days. Unable to make a connection with guys, Annie’s holding out for Tom Hanks- not the celebrity himself, but what he represents from all of his romantic comedies: a guy who is kind, funny, thoughtful, a little sarcastic but with a heart of gold and the need for the same deep, forever kind of commitment she’s longing for. Of course, Annie’s best friend thinks she’s a little nuts, but Annie knows what she wants, and she refuses to settle for less.

The news breaks that a mega-famous director will be filming a rom-com in Annie’s neighborhood, and Annie can’t believe her luck when said director turns out to be her uncle’s college roommate. Annie’s in as his personal assistant, which means plenty of time to ogle/humiliate herself in front of Drew Danforth, the male lead of the film. He’s got a reputation as a Hollywood prankster, but before too long, Annie realizes she needs to forget all the old Hollywood stereotypes, because what she has with Drew just might be the real deal, if only she can believe in something slightly less perfect than that flawless rom-com she’s designed in her fantasies.

This was cute. All the references to the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan/Sandra Bullock romantic comedies of the 80’s and 90’s made my heart so, so happy. I binge watched everything that Meg Ryan and Sandra Bullock were in during those years; I practically have the entire scripts of French Kiss and While You Were Sleeping memorized (you ever realize how creepy those movies would both be if someone tried to pull off the stunts that the main characters did in real life? Most romantic comedies are like that. All these people committing fraud and breaking and entering, among other crimes, in order to pretend to be someone they’re not is more than a little weird, to be honest. How did this genre grow so popular?). So a book that centered around the movies of my teenage years was enough to make my not-exactly-old-but-no-longer-young heart sing a little.

The premise drew me in a little more than the characters, however. Annie has the tragic rom-com character backstory, having lost both of her parents while still young, but her inability to change and her need to cling to the idea of the perfect happily-ever-after grew stale halfway through the book. Drew was more palatable, although at times I wondered what on earth possibly drew (ha!) him to Annie, with as wacky as her behavior could be. Uncle Don, however, was eleven thousand kinds of adorable, with his Dungeons and Dragons obsession, his awkwardness and nerdy side that dressed up as Chewbaca and could quote from all the nerd favorites: Star Wars, Star Trek, Tolkien. He completely and totally accepted himself for who he was, he was content with his simple life, and he loved the people around them exactly as they were. More Uncle Dons in fiction, please!

This is a light read, and would’ve made for a great vacation read, had it not appeared in the library when I was an eight hour car ride away. 😉 Waiting for Tom Hanks is not without its flaws, but it’s sweet and cute and will tug at your heartstrings if you spent way too much time in your youth wishing you could could wake up with hair just like Meg Ryan. (In this case, sadly, wishes never did come true. Alas.)

Visit Kerry Winfrey’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.