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When Both Mother and Daughter Know Best

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By Laura Zigman,
who is the author of "Animal Husbandry" and "Piece of Work," among other novels
Wednesday, April 23, 2008

CERTAIN GIRLS

By Jennifer Weiner

This Story

Atria. 383 pp. $26.95

When I got the call to review "Certain Girls," the long-awaited sequel to Jennifer Weiner's best-selling "Good in Bed," my first thought was that I wasn't Weiner-worthy. I was about a decade behind in my reading (though completely up-to-date on my television-watching) and had never read her hugely popular first novel. But once I'd caught up, I knew that Jane Smiley's dismissive review of "the pinkest book you can imagine" -- in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the paper Weiner herself used to write for -- was funny enough in a bitterly ironic way to be something right out of one of Weiner's novels.

Smiley thinks it's a shame that Weiner doesn't "address larger questions than the psychological ups and downs of her nice Jewish characters," but to me there are few things larger, not to mention more interesting and entertaining, than the psychological ups and downs of nice Jewish characters, especially the ones Weiner writes about. Her rabid fans -- more than 9 million copies of her books are in print worldwide-- clearly agree and have been devouring her stories about women who wear double-digit-size clothes and are in various stages of love or heartbreak or marriage or motherhood since 2001, with no sign of stopping. Weiner's women -- witty, wisecracking and weight-watching -- feel familiar, and entering and turning the pages of their lives as they cook chickens or take to their big, comfortable, 400-thread-count sheeted beds while they figure out what they're going to do next is almost as easy as walking into our own kitchens and bedrooms: We've been here before, and we're glad to be back.

It's 12 years later for Cannie Shapiro, and certain things have changed: She's now married to Peter Krushelevansky, the obesity doctor she fell in love with at the end of "Good in Bed," and her baby, Joy, isn't a baby anymore, even if Cannie hasn't quite accepted that fact. Other things haven't changed: She's still plus-size, she's still raking in the royalties from her racy roman a clef, "Big Girls Don't Cry," which she wrote after getting dumped by Joy's father, and she's still a product of her own father's callous rejection. The snippy quips, the smarty-pants attitude, the relentless humor and repartee are the acquired tics and telltale signs of big girls who cry when no one's looking. Only now Cannie is a kinder, gentler version of herself: She's a mother to a bat-mitzvah-age girl who wears hearing aids (the result of premature birth), and she lives to protect her daughter from the unseemly book she once wrote and from the world's ambient pain and cruelty:

"I was pretty certain, at thirteen, that I had more in common with the bow-wows [on the wedding announcements page] than the beautiful brides, and I was positive that the worst thing that could happen to any woman would be winning that contest. Now, of course, I know better. The worst thing would not be a couple of superannuated pranksters on a ratings-challenged radio station oinking at your picture and depositing dog food at your door. The worst thing would be if they did it to your daughter."

Fortunately for Cannie, Joy Shapiro Krushelevansky has "the kind of body I always figured was available only thanks to divine or surgical intervention," and fortunately for us, Weiner tells the story from both the mother's and daughter's perspectives in alternating chapters. Joy, who used to think she was special, "in a good way, like my mother used to tell me," has since learned she is not, which is fine, since all she really wants is to be normal, one of those "certain girls" to whom looks and personality come impossibly easily. But she has two fathers, a gay grandmother and a smothering mother, who "would never, ever forget me. Not even for twenty minutes. Probably not even for twenty seconds." And she knows that the only reason she's been invited to the bat mitzvah of Amber Gross, the most popular girl in school, is because of Cannie's book and brush with fame. Determined, in between shopping for the perfect bat mitzvah dress, to separate the fact from the fiction in her mother's life, and in her own, Joy begins the inevitable process of separation that drives their relationship to a different and ultimately better place.

In the emotional core of the book, Weiner portrays with tear-jerking precision both the long, dark shadows of a painful childhood and the excruciatingly small window of blissful closeness that parents get to enjoy with their kids before they grow up and start to know better. Weiner, who in interviews talks about growing up Jewish in a non-Jewish Connecticut town, dealing with her own parents' divorce and being plus-size herself, is a self-professed outsider, and it's that nose-pressed-up-against-the-glass quality that gives her writing such a punch. It's what makes her wish-fulfillment, happy-ending plots forgivable, and it's what makes "Certain Girls" the kind of book that gets under your skin, reminding you what it felt like to listen to your friend snap her retainer in the dark during a sleepover when you were 13 and capturing exactly what it feels like now, watching your child grow away from you and praying that someday she comes back.


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