Jennifer Weiner’s Certain Girls (Atria Books, $24.95) is a homecoming of sorts: Weiner brings her readers back to Candace Shapiro, the snappy protagonist of her bestselling first novel Good in Bed, a novel many cuts above its chick-lit sisters.
Candace, or Cannie, now 13 years older in her late thirties or so, lives in Philadelphia and is married to Peter Krushevelansky, her old diet doctor (“bariatric physician!” he would put it), who is helping her to parent her daughter, Joy. The father, Bruce Guberman, is Cannie’s ex-boyfriend, largely absent, at least emotionally. Cannie is an at-home mom whose attentions are focused on soon-to-be-abat- mitzvah Joy — much to Joy’s chagrin. When Joy reads her mother’s bestselling and thinly-veiled autobiographical novel about her past, she starts wondering about where she came from, metaphorically as well as literally, and sets out to find out.
Much of the book banks on the readers’ affection for Cannie — and it’s a good bet, as Cannie was thoroughly fleshed out (terrible pun intended) in Weiner’s first novel, where she was vivid, personally flawed and therefore tellingly real. Certain Girls alternates chapters between Joy’s voice and Cannie’s with varying degrees of effectiveness; sometimes, the switch is jarring. Nevertheless, Weiner shows off her dexterity with the newer voice of Joy, an absolutely believable teenager. While she’s different from her mother, she shares the wit and intellect that made her mom’s novel a pleasure to read.
This book largely concerns itself with how Joy deals with her mother’s novel about pre-motherhood life, but also rotates on the axis of Joy’s impending bat mitzvah. In a great moment of trademark Weiner wit, Peter says to Cannie, “You think that bar mitzvahs like Tyler’s are the reason the world hates America in general, and Jews in particular, and that if we throw Joy a hundred-thousand-dollar party with dancers and video invitations and costume changes, it means that the terrorists have won,” to which Cannie responds, “More or less.” In terms of Judaism, on the spectrum between reverence and sarcasm, the book steers a clear course in the center (with a few dips toward the sarcastic, of course).
As a general rule, though, the book is an accurate and enjoyable reflection of each generation’s world and preoccupations, concerns and fears, sentiments and vocabulary. Cannie’s sister is a perennial source of concern: at “thirty-two and holding,” Cannie is concerned with the impact she might have on Joy: “God only knew what Elle would think was an appropriate dress for a thirteen-year-old. By the time my sister was through with her, Joy would probably be demanding a pimps and hos party complete with monogrammed condoms in the gift bags.” For Joy, her mother’s utter lack of fashion sense is a true dilemma: “It looks like God ate Mexican food, then threw up on you,” she lovingly tells her mother in Nordstrom.
Still, this novel, like its characters, is not without “issues.” Without going into detail, a plot twist in the final stretch of the book utterly confounded me in its seeming arbitrariness. If I brought that up to the real-life Weiner, though, or to Cannie, she might counter that life sometimes confounds us with its seeming arbitrariness as well. To which I’d respond, fair enough.
Jordana Horn is a lawyer and journalist at work on her first novel.