certain girls

I never before would have hesitated to call Jennifer Weiner’s books “chick lit.”  This isn’t a term I use derogatorily; in my opinion, it refers to books written for and about women, usually humorous, generally involving relationships with men.  In some examples of the genre, the relationships are the ultimate focus of the novel; in the stronger works, they’re a complication within the larger plot.  And this is what I think Weiner does well — she writes complex female characters who may have some issues with men and relationships but generally have a lot of other complications in their lives as well, allowing for plots that are largely about self-discovery and identity. 

With Certain Girls, Weiner has taken this one step further.  If pressed to categorize it, I would probably still consider it to be a part of the chick lit universe.  But it’s angle and complexity are certainly unusual for the genre and add both weight and emotion to the novel. 

In Certain Girls, Weiner continues her character from her debut novel, Good in Bed,  and looks at Cannie Shapiro’s life a decade later.  (Warning: it’s impossible to write about this book without revealing pieces of Good in Bed.)  Cannie, as readers learned in Good in Bed and are reminded of here, is a large woman.  Her size has always been a struggle for her and certainly affected both her relationships and sense of self-worth.   However, the birth of her daughter Joy, her successful career as a writer, and her marriage to Peter have led to a sense of security and purpose that seem to have replaced her self-doubts. 

But as Joy begins to near her bat mitzvah — and her teens — her changing attitude, falling grades, and increasing secrecy lead Cannie to start questioning herself again while worrying for her daughter, none of which is helped by her husband’s seemingly sudden desire to have a baby.  And when Joy begins to uncover aspects of her mother’s past Cannie never wanted her to know, their cracks in their relationship become much deeper.   

The strength of Certain Girls  comes from the alternating viewpoints; though we start off with Cannie as our narrator, in the next chapter we shift to Joy’s point of view.  Both mother and daughter have well-defined voices, and the shifting perspectives provide a balance to the story as it unfolds.  What sets this novel apart in the realm of chick lit is the limited presence of men.  Both Cannie’s husband Peter and Joy’s father Bruce have roles that are central to the story, but their actual appearance on the page is limited.  Joy, as a junior high student, inevitably thinks about and comes into contact with boys her age, but the vast majority of the dialogue, interaction, and conflict exists between women: Cannie and Joy, but also Cannie’s sister Elle and her mother Ann, as well as Joy’s friends Amber and Tamsin. 

The result is a quick, engrossing read that, while humorous at times, does not hesitate to incorporate heartbreak at others.  Weiner creates an honest look at a mother-daughter relationship that, though atypical in some ways, reflects struggles inherent to those roles.

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~ by Molly on June 12, 2009.

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