by Jennifer Weiner
” Peter had talked me out of it. “It’s one quarter of seventh grade,” he’d argued. “All she needs is time.” Time, I thought now. I sipped my drink and shoved the worries away. I’ve gotten good at that. At the age of forty-two, I’ve decided, ruefully, that I’m slightly inclined toward melancholy. I don’t trust happiness. I turn it over as if it were a glass at a flea market or a rug at a souk, looking for chipped rims or loose threads. But not Joy, I thought as I watched my daughter shuffle back and forth with the boy’s hands on her hips, laughing at something he’d said. Joy is fine. Joy is lovely and lucky. And in the manner of almost-thirteen-year-olds everywhere, my daughter has no idea how lovely, or how lucky, she is.”
There are some books that you just know are going to be difficult to read, and Certain Girls was one of those books for me.
I flew through Jennifer Weiner’s Good In Bed two months before I picked this one up, laughing and crying in equal parts along with the main character, Cannie Shapiro; an overweight writer who has to deal with picking up the pieces of her life after her ex-boyfriend decides to go on the record with a major magazine about “how it is to be in a sexual relationship with a fat girl.” Cannie finds herself pregnant and alone, spending just a few moments feeling sorry for herself before rebuilding her life into something beautiful on her own terms, with so much realness and comedy along the way that you cannot help but feel as if you have absorbed a piece of Cannie’s spirit once the story comes to a close.
Good In Bed was so real in fact,that I had to put it down several times while reading it. Too many things were hitting home. Her verbally abusive father, her well-meaning but oblivious mother, being in a relationship with someone who was not plugged in at all and then having to share a child with that person forever…it all spoke to me in such a way that there were times I couldn’t quite take it. Few books leave me feeling so invested.
I’d heard of Jennifer Weiner before reading her books. I am a regular at our local Half Price Books store and my first stop after pulling open the heavy, glass double doors and entering the land of my people, is the clearance section. Books for $1? You don’t have to ask me twice. In fact, I’ve been surprised and downright giddy at just how many times I’ve found the same book in the clearance section as on the regular shelf – but for $3 instead of $10. Jennifer Weiner always has several titles in clearance. Not because they are bad, but because there are so many of them that there is an overstock. I heard somewhere random that every single book she has ever written has been on the New York Times Bestseller List, and that intrigued me. No bombs? Not one? That’s pretty impressive. One of her novels, In Her Shoes, has also been made into a motion picture starring Cameron Diaz. The author has stated in the past that Good In Bed is loosely based on her own life.
Certain Girls is the sequel to Good In Bed, staged nearly thirteen years later. It opens with Cannie and her husband celebrating at a joint bat & bar mitzvah for her daughter’s best friends, twins Todd and Tamsin. The baby we glimpsed in Good In Bed is all grown up, and Joy has a mind and voice of her own that is just as strong (but less sarcastic) as her mother’s. Each chapter bounces back and forth between the first person perspectives of both Cannie and Joy, and as a mother to a daughter roughly the same age as Joy, I felt that I gained some insight into a teenage girl’s mind.
” “Shh,” I said as I heard my mother’s footsteps approaching. I turned out the lights, and the three of us lay in the darkness. Tamsin clicked her retainer in and out of her mouth and picked up her book and tried to read it by the light of the digital clock, and I whispered for her to be quiet and put it away. Frenchie grumbled in her sleep. The numbers on the clock changed from 12:45 to 12:46. “Why does she do this?” Todd wondered. “She just loves me so much,” I said. I’d meant for it to come out sarcastic, but instead it just sounded pathetic, and weak, and worst of all, true. At 12:57, the door creaked open. I made sure my hair was over my ears so that my mom wouldn’t see my hearing aids and know that we’d been talking, and I held my breath, hoping that Tamsin wouldn’t start with her retainer and give us away. My mother approached the bed and stood there for a moment, not touching me but looking down, the way she did every single night of my life, standing in the dark, listening to me breathe. When she turned toward the window, I opened my eyes a crack, and I could see her in the lamplight, her secret face, the one she shows only to me. “
The relationship between mother and daughter is strained, to say the least. A lot of it is centered around normal growing pains on Joy’s part and Cannie’s inability to accept that her daughter is no longer the baby that needs her for everything, anymore. In Good in Bed, Cannie has to really come to grips with giving her life up to be a mother, and when she makes that choice, she goes in full force. Her own childhood was full of heartache and disappointments and that is the last thing she wants for her daughter, so she severely overcompensates. As a result, Joy feels stifled and unheard, and it breeds discontent and anger in the budding teenager. The way that the story goes back and forth in perspective leaves you feeling for both characters; you can see where they both are coming from and how hard it is for both Joy to grow up and how hard it is for Cannie to let her.
Like many young girls on the verge of puberty, Joy yearns to be popular, and at the very least, just to be normal. Because she was born premature she has several issues, including a hearing problem that has resulted in her having to wear bulky hearing aids. Her voice is gravely and has a slight accent from the hearing issue, and she has never been allowed the freedoms of other children because her mother is so overprotective. Suddenly, she finds herself whisked into the popular crowd and even though she knows it’s all for the wrong reasons (i.e. they know her mother is best friends with a famous Hollywood actress), she jumps into the scene with both feet, causing discord with her bookish best friend. We go on a journey with Joy as she struggles against what she’s always known to be right, and wanting to fit in. She finds herself in awkward situations where she knows what she is doing is wrong, but she can’t help herself – although to watch her try and redeem herself is so very heartwarming.
One of the things Joy begins to deal with is the fact that her mother wrote a book, Big Girls Don’t Cry, around the time that Joy was born. It’s a book of fiction, but it is very obviously based upon her mother’s life. Joy begins a quest to find out what is real and what isn’t; her most pressing question is if her mother actually wanted her or not (the character in the book her mother wrote did not want a baby but found herself pregnant after a one-night stand with her ex-boyfriend, exactly like real life). In this quest, she hunts down her grandfather, and the exchange is so raw that I could barely get through it. You just want to give Joy a hug…as a mother, myself, I just want to protect her.
Cannie is dealing with getting older along with her daughter. She’s also dealing with her younger, unstable sister and her needy mother. Her husband, Peter, also yearns for a biological child of his own. Due to the circumstances around Joy’s birth, Cannie cannot become pregnant herself, so they have to begin the process of finding a surrogate and harvesting eggs. The culmination of these life issues leaves Cannie feeling like a failure. She feels guilty that she cannot carry a child naturally for her husband and she feels jealous that another woman will potentially get to savor the feeling of having a child – her and Peter’s child – growing inside of her. She is along for the ride, albeit reluctantly. Her book agent and publisher are hounding her to write another book like successful Big Girls Don’t Cry, but she’s extremely hesitant because of all of the drama and trouble that came along with the first book. When she finds out that her daughter has finally read Big Girls, something she’s been dreading for 13 years, she is devastated even though she knew it was inevitable. It seems that Joy will talk to anyone but Cannie about the book, making Cannie feel like even more of an outsider in her daughter’s world.
“I looked at her. She looked back at me, her face tense and unreadable. “What are you so worried about? What do you think’s going to happen to me if I wear it? Do you think…” I shut my mouth. Do you think I’ll have sex with some guy on a pullout couch? I’d been on the verge of asking. Do you think I’ll get pregnant accidentally, like you? “I’m sorry,” she said. “But that dress is not going to work for the kind of day your father and I want you to have.” Which father? I almost said. But I could tell from her face it wouldn’t do me any good. I knew this expression. It was the same one she’d worn when she’d told me that I couldn’t go to an R-rated movie, that I couldn’t go to a party unless she’d talked to the parents beforehand, that she didn’t care how late everyone else stayed up, my bedtime on a school night was ten o’clock. I pulled off the dress and tossed it only my mom’s bed, where it lay in a pathetic puddle of pink. “Honey, I’m sorry. but…” I didn’t say anything. Hypocrite, I thought, forming the syllables on my lips, teeth and tongue without any breath behind them as I stomped down the hallway lined with family pictures: me as a baby, me as a toddler, me on my first day of nursery school and kindergarten and seventh grade, past the clock my mother was so proud of and the tables with vases of red and pink roses. Hy-po-crite. When she was only a little older than I was, she’d been having sex, actual sex with actual boys, and now she was worried that I was showing my shoulders?”
Joy doesn’t quite know how to navigate her way through her non-traditional family. Her biological father, Bruce, is remarried and has children of his own with a wife who is resentful of the fact that Joy even exists, and although she doesn’t have a very deep relationship with him, they do see each other a few times a month. She has a whole other family that she barely knows, and as she reads through her mother’s book, she once again asks herself how much is fiction and how much is fact. In her mother’s book, the ex-boyfriend took off to another country when he found out that he was expecting a child and the more research Joy does on the events in the book, the more confused she becomes. This contributes to Joy’s insecurities about family and about where she really belongs, about who really loves her. It reminded me just how fragile a young girl’s feelings can be, especially when she cannot seem to find the true place where she belongs.
“Of course we want you,” Bruce said. “We –” I cut him off. “I have to go now. My mom’s here,” I said, and turned and snatched my backpack off the coat hook where I’d hung it. I pushed the doors open and stood for a minute, dazzled by the sunlight. They both came after me. I ignored them, which was easy to do once I’d slipped my hearing aids out with tears clouding my vision. Keep moving, keep moving, I chanted in my head, and I started walking fast across the parking lot, Amber’s ballet flats slapping the pavement, sunshine sparkling off the windshields. Bruce called my name, but I just keep going, as if I’d find my mother’s blue minivan idling at the curb. At that minute, I thought I would have given anything if she had been waiting there, if she’d taken me into her arms and said, Never mind him and never mind her and never mind what I wrote. Of course I wanted you, I wanted you more than anything. I kept my head high and didn’t turn around even though I could hear Bruce calling my name. Probably they’re glad I’m going, I thought, and brushed a tear off my cheek. Probably now they’ll have fun.
I was struck by how much Cannie wanted to be there for everyone in her life. I think most mothers can relate to that. Once you become a mom, the instinct to take care of everyone sometimes bleeds into all of your relationships and you do things without even realizing it half the time. The Cannie in Good In Bed was so strong-willed and ambitious, and the Cannie in this book was much more reserved; she had much more to lose. I can definitely relate to that. Becoming a mother sometimes means giving up your entire life for someone else, and then hoping that they will eventually realize all the sacrifices you made for them and be grateful. Sometimes it takes a long time for our children to realize what we have given up to try and make their lives easier and better.
The relationship that Cannie has with her father is addressed a lot deeper in this book than in the first. We knew he was mentally and verbally abusive and we knew that he’d abandoned the family when Cannie was a teenager to remarry and begin a new life for himself. Some of the reflections on this relationship were heartbreaking. Cannie can remember how she only ever wanted her father to tell her that he was proud of her, and on the odd times that he did, it would make her feel so warm and wonderful inside. But as Cannie grew into an adult and then became a parent herself, she really saw just how terrible her father was to her and her siblings and the longing for a father became a fear of him. He reached out to her when Joy was a toddler, only to ask Cannie (a newly successful writer) for money. When he didn’t receive it, his response was to threaten Cannie in a way that I felt was so sad – he threatened to show up, to be around. The thought of this paralyzed her and made her hold herself back. The thought that this man who fathered her would somehow taint her own child, would bestow his verbal assaults and plant insecurities in her own child – that was her greatest fear. This hit home with me in an extremely deeply way.
Joy decides to seek her grandfather out in the midst of her quest on proving her mother’s book is more fact than fiction, and she certainly gets more than she bargained for.
” ” ‘How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child,’ ” he quoted. “That’s your mother. That’s all of them. Thankless.” “She’s not.” My tongue felt shriveled; my teeth felt like they’d been coated in sawdust. “She’s not,” I said again. I remembered the pictures from Grandma Ann’s, from when my mother was older, how she’d always looked like she was cringing. I remembered how my mother would take me swimming in the ocean when I was little, staying close to the shore, letting me hold her shoulders as she kicked and paddled, how I’d floated above her back and felt like I was flying. I remembered what she’d said to Hope, the baby she’d had but hadn’t wanted, on the last page of her book. I will love you forever. I will keep you safe. “I made her who she is.” My mother’s father gave me a sly, smug smile. “Read to her. Taught her to swim. Gave her all of her material. The story she told. And she made a fortune off it, didn’t she? Where would she have been without me?” “Happy?” The word was out of my mouth before I knew it. “
The events that follow this one really begin to shape Joy into a young woman and she begins to realize with almost terrifying clarity that the place she has been searching for – her place of belonging – is right in front of her, with her mother. I wouldn’t necessarily call this a traditional “coming of age” story, especially as it is as much Cannie’s story as it is Joy’s, but it is such a pleasure to watch the evolution of Joy and the transition of the mother/daughter relationship. Cannie learns to treat her daughter more like a young woman instead of a child, and really has to lean on her as the book progresses. It’s a lovely thing to watch, and none of it feels forced. It’s very organic. Joy learns to respect and understand her mother and Cannie learns to allow her child to flourish.
” “For you,” my grandfather said, and pressed the silver dollar into my hand. “For luck.” He pulled off his glasses and looked at all of us: Grandma Ann and Mona, Uncle Josh and Aunt Elle, and then, finally, me and my mother. “I’m so proud of you,” he said. My mother started to cry. I remembered after Tyler’s bar mitzvah, when I was sick in the bathroom and my father said the same thing to me. It was weird to think of my mother being a daughter the same way that I was, and how she might have been comforted by those words the same way I had been.” “
The last quarter of the book really takes a turn that I wish it didn’t take. I won’t spoil it, but seriously, I was cursing the author. I guess she did what she had to do to get us to a certain place – to get Cannie and Joy to a certain place – but it broke my heart. I don’t usually cry over books, but I couldn’t hold back tears, so I recommend reading the last 50 pages or so alone so you can ugly cry in private.
I really loved this book, but I’m glad I took a break between the first and second in this duo. They both left me feeling a bit emotionally drained. Wonderful reads, but draining. There are some books that stick with me forever, and I can tell you that both of these will. I give Certain Girls 5 out of 5 stars, and believe it or not – you don’t have to read Good In Bed first. In my opinion, they are stand alone books. If you do read them and would like to giggle over a short story written about Bruce Guberman, Joy’s biological father, check it out in The Guy Not Taken, a collection of short stories by Jennifer Weiner.