Jennifer Weiner’s snappy new novel, “The Next Best Thing,” is a sendup of Hollywood foibles loosely based on her experience as co-creator and executive producer of the short-lived sitcom “State of Georgia.”
Fans might remember the book’s protagonist, Ruth Saunders, from the short story “Swim” in Weiner’s 2006 collection, “The Guy Not Taken.” Ruth’s been living in Framingham, Mass., with her grandmother since she was 3 and her parents died in a car accident that left the right side of her face scarred.
During the summer before third grade, while she was in the hospital undergoing a series of painful reconstructive surgeries, she fell in love with television, in particular the perfect world of “The Golden Girls”:
“The weather was always warm and the skies were always sunny, and no crisis could not be managed in twenty-two minutes plus two commercial breaks. In that happy land, not everyone was beautiful, or young, or perfect. Not everyone had romantic love. But everyone had friends, a family they’d chosen. It was that love that sustained them, and that love, I imagined, could sustain me, too.”
As the novel opens, Ruth, now 28 and living in Los Angeles, tries to create a little of that TV magic herself. She writes a show called “The Next Best Thing,” about a young woman who moves to a new town with her grandmother to start over after they have each suffered a disappointment.
Always acutely self-conscious of her looks, Ruth discovered in high school that writing could be “a way to use my voice, funny-mean and observant, to earn my keep, to make my name, to carve out a place in the world.”
When her sitcom gets greenlighted, Ruth thinks she’s finally arrived. But things on and off the set don’t work out the way she planned: She falls in love with her boss, who already has a gorgeous girlfriend; the show’s plus-size star sabotages her own part; and Ruth’s hilarious 76-year-old grandma finds she wants a life of her own in Los Angeles.
“The Next Best Thing,” Weiner’s 10th novel, showcases her humor and style. It’s also a gentle reminder that, as Mick Jagger sings, “You can’t always get what you want,” but with enough effort you might get what you need, and that makes the next best thing feel all right.
Robertson is a senior producer of “The Diane Rehm Show.”