What happens to teenage angst when the teenager outgrows it? Maybe it withers, becoming just a memory of those self-absorbed years when the world was against you. Or perhaps angst all grown up manifests itself as betrayal, the gut-wrenching feeling after a loved one reveals he’s been playing against you.
Molly Ringwald knows both feelings well. In her first novel, “When It Happens to You,” this queen of 1980s teenage angst (“Sixteen Candles,” “The Breakfast Club,” “Pretty in Pink”) puts betrayal center stage. And she does it in a way that’s as visceral as a girl’s disgust when everyone forgets her 16th birthday.
Only this time, the stakes are higher, as Ringwald tackles questions such as: Can a marriage overcome infidelity? What does it mean to love a child unconditionally? And how do you move on when a loved one dies?
A large part of what makes this novel-in-stories so enjoyable is its structure, the way the connections between characters unfold from piece to piece. Each story could stand on its own, but they fit together to reveal links among these family members, neighbors and friends in Los Angeles.
In the first one, “The Harvest Moon,” we meet Greta, Phillip and their 6-year-old daughter, Charlotte, who become the main characters around which Ringwald’s novel revolves. They’re jumping in the car to catch sight of the full moon during the autumnal equinox. The tension between Greta and Phillip is palpable. Once Phillip’s affair is revealed, the disconnect between them becomes “an enmity so fierce and jagged” that Greta “could almost feel it cutting her body from the inside, as if she had swallowed a handful of broken glass and the shards were struggling to work their way out.”
This is more than the tale of woman scorned, of course. We later get Phillip’s point of view, which humanizes him despite the fact that his act of betrayal becomes the novel’s main conflict. “Each confession made him more delirious. He started confessing things that he wasn’t even sure happened,” Ringwald writes. “It all became a toxic muddle of fact and fiction, and he was no more able to stop confessing than a bulimic teenager could withstand the call of purification following a slumber party.”
It’s tough to write from several disparate characters’ minds and make them seem real, but Ringwald excels at that task. I just wish we could hear more from the youngest voices in this constellation: Charlotte and her friend, Oliver, a 6-year-old boy who assures his mother he’s really a girl. We hear only what his mother thinks: “No one is going to convince him that he’s a boy. And I can’t make him a girl. He already resents me for it. It’s like he thinks it’s my fault that I gave birth to him and made him a boy.”
But how does Oliver — or, as he prefers to be called, Olivia — experience this gender identity crisis? We don’t really find out. Nor do we hear directly from Charlotte, who is drawn mainly through others’ narrations. Why not channel some of that teenage angst that Ringwald knows so well into imagining what it must be like to be a 6-year-old seeing your parents drift apart?
Overall, Ringwald weaves an emotional narrative that avoids getting bogged down in melodrama. With an economy of language, she keeps the story moving, taking readers inside characters’ heads without leaving them there too long. Ringwald’s storytelling succeeds as much on the page as her acting has done on screen. I look forward to her next literary performance.
Bonos is an editor in Outlook.