Certain Girls

By Jennifer Weiner

Atria Books. 386 pp. $26.95


Reviewed by Jane Smiley


Just so you know the target audience, Jennifer Weiner's new novel,

Certain Girls

, is about the pinkest book you can imagine.

The jacket is pale pink; the endpapers are practically fuchsia. The jacket also sports a fluffy skirt and some very high heels.

Certain Girls

is the sequel to Weiner's 2001 best seller,

Good in Bed

, which had more fleshtones, but also plenty of pink and turquoise.

I mention these things because Weiner does not need to be published in pink - her publishers could target a general audience.

Weiner is a talented and accomplished novelist, with real stylistic flair, excellent and sometimes laugh-out-loud wit, and good insight into her characters. In her latest novel, she seems boxed in by her chosen genre, and it's a shame, because she's got the intelligence and the ambition to address larger questions than the psychological ups and downs of her nice Jewish characters. For whatever reason, though, she doesn't dare.

In

Good in Bed

, we were introduced to Cannie Shapiro, 29-year-old journalist on the Hollywood beat for the Philadelphia Examiner. Back then, Cannie was in trouble - unable to get over her not-so-desirable boyfriend - and she got herself into bigger trouble by getting pregnant by him.

Cannie's real problem in

Good in Bed

, though, is not so much what happens to her as who she is. She is obsessed by her weight, obsessed by the departure of her father, obsessed by her own feelings.

In spite of her eloquence and wit, it's clear all the way to the end of the novel that she really cannot see her situation or her friends with any perspective or empathy. Her mother loves someone Cannie finds unattractive. Her father has apparently abandoned the family. Her ex-boyfriend has written a rather insightful article about their relationship.

It doesn't matter how kind these characters are to Cannie, their efforts are never enough. In

Good in Bed

, Weiner never quite solves the dilemma of Cannie's self-centeredness. In

Certain Girls

, she returns to try again.

This time, Cannie is herself the mother of a 13-year-old daughter, Joy (born at the end of

Good in Bed

), who is about to have her bat mitzvah. Cannie is happily married to Dr. Kruchalevsky, and everything seems fine, except that one day Joy happens to not get all A's on her report card. Then Dr. Kruchalevsky (Pete), decides that he wants to have a baby, using a surrogate mother because, as a result of the accident at the end of

Good in Bed

, Cannie has had to have a hysterectomy.

Cannie has retained her wit and her sharp takes on the world she lives in, but she has evolved in some ways. No longer obsessed with her weight, she is also able to cut her mother and sister some slack. Her obsession this time is her daughter, and in some ways her obsession is warranted, since Joy's premature birth has resulted in considerable hearing loss and many years of various interventions.

By the opening of the novel, however, the girl is a more or less typical 13-year-old, which means that Mom is the enemy and Joy's motto is, as they say, "I hate you, and please take me to the mall."

The difficulty for Weiner as an author is in making a compelling novel out of these fairly mundane materials. To do so, she employs the technique of telling the story in alternate voices, Cannie's and Joy's. The reader is quickly initiated into the secrets of the daughter that the mother is not party to, and, of course, Joy, like Cannie before her, can't get over the various ways that she doesn't fit into the world she lives in. In this, she is a typical 13-year-old girl, but, as befitting the daughter of someone like Cannie, who tends to go to extremes, Joy, too, goes to extremes in her attempts to discover and correct what's wrong with her life. One of the first things she does is read her mother's novel, hidden from her all these years, titled

Big Girls Don't Cry

. She is not pleased.

Cannie's narrative smarts don't win her over. Just as Cannie cannot tolerate being seen from any perspective other than her own, Joy cannot tolerate that her mother's 10-year-old novel about her is different from her mother's manner toward her (even though she doesn't like that much, either).

All of this is not terribly dissimilar from Meg Wolitzer's novel

The Position

, about four siblings who discover the illustrated sex manual their parents had written in the 1970s, and it speaks to the nervousness all novelists feel about whether their children will suffer from the exposure of having a novelist in the family. The problem is that Weiner doesn't pull it off, in part because her grasp of Joy's 13-year-old voice is not quite sure enough.

Sometimes, Joy's sections read like the inner life of a 13-year-old and sometimes her voice is indistinguishable from Cannie's, even though her point of view is always different. The deeper problem is that Cannie's family dilemma is typical rather than atypical.

The charm of

Good in Bed

is that the good girl messes up after years of doing the right thing, and must explore the layers beneath all her years of being good. In

Certain Girls

, however, Weiner has to compound the drama of the mother/daughter antagonism in increasingly unbelievable ways, until at last a deus ex machina provides the narrative with a little extra drama in a way that I shall not describe, but that aroused my readerly resentment rather than sympathy.

If she had asked me, I would have said, "Tell the whole story from the kid's perspective." That would have been the more daring and intriguing way to use the material.

The pinkness of

Certain Girls

raises another issue for me, though, and that is, why is this considered such an inherently women's novel that men aren't even invited to buy it? Weiner's voice is smart and edgy, and her male characters, though relegated to the sidelines, are sharply drawn. She writes about issues, such as the dynamics of family life, that are of interest to all humans, or have been in other generations.

In comparison to

Good in Bed

, the pinkness of the novel implies to me that Weiner herself has given up seeking a wider audience, and so given up developing her fictional premises from lots of different perspectives. The introduction of Joy might have allowed Weiner to expand the roles (and the voices) of Bruce, Joy's father, and Peter, Joy's stepfather, not to mention Josh, Joy's uncle, and Todd, Joy's second-best friend.

These characters don't have to take over, but they could speak up, especially since their perspectives intrigue Joy. But somehow, in the last 10 years, American fiction has split again, into the boys' team and the girls' team.

Certain Girls

demonstrates that this works to impoverish both sides.

Author Appearances

Jennifer Weiner has two scheduled appearances in Center City:

Wednesday, from 7 to 8:30 p.m., at St. Peter's School, 319 Lombard St.

Next Sunday, April 13, at 4 p.m., at the Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine St.