Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Thoughts on Then Came You, and "Chick Lit"

Then Came You
Jennifer Weiner

I read all kinds of books. I'm more drawn to what I guess is called "literary fiction" or the classics, or  some under appreciated but somehow "worthwhile" novel. Every now and then I will indulge in a bit of "brain candy" as I like to call it. I usually do not admit this. There was one time, back when I was teaching, and the assistant principal (and a member of my book club) caught me reading a Nora Roberts novel my grandmother had given me. I probably turned three shades of red as I stammered out an explanation.

Why is this? I think it has to do with the fact that many books by female authors are thought to be silly and not worth reading. And honestly, that reeks of sexism. I mean, if you're caught reading I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, it may be embarrassing, but for other reasons. People generally probably aren't thinking you're incapable of reading anything more serious. They might (rightfully, IMHO) think you have bad taste.

Jennifer Weiner seems to have become one of the more visible authors pushing back against these stereotypes. I give her a lot of credit for doing this, because it's not easy countering sexism in public, under your real name, wanting your ideas to be seriously considered.

So in recognition of that, I decided to read one of Ms. Weiner's books, Then Came You. Was it my favorite book? No. It was fine. Three stars, which is pretty typical for how I rate books (46 out of the 113 books I read last year were 3 star reads). Did I enjoy my time reading it? Yes. It was a cute story.

I liked that the main female characters each had their own voice and personality. I could even see them in my mind's eye, which is pretty rare for me. I usually just gloss over descriptions and see everyone as a blurry outline. I liked that there were POC and lesbian characters who weren't stuck in there just because. I liked that I learned a bit about egg donation and non-traditional ways of having children.

Some of the details did make me roll my eyes. Please, I know New York is an expensive city, but believe me, if you make $100K a year and live in a crappy apartment with three roommates you should not have a hard time making that work. And you aren't looking for the most economical route to get somewhere in the city. You use your monthly unlimited transit pass and hop on the subway or bus, not thinking twice. Maybe that's nit-picky, but I hate it when authors get details so wrong. I don't know about a lot of things, but when I know you're getting stuff wrong, it makes me wonder what else is inaccurate.

The other main thing I dislike was that one character, India, seemed to change a couple of times with no real warning or explanation. She goes from ├╝ber-evil gold digging stepmother to loving wife at the drop of a hat. just a quick:
"[A]t some point, I'd actually fallen in love with my husband."
Okayyyyyy, whatever.

So, the book certainly wasn't perfect. But I've read far, far worse. I liked this way better than Pillars of the Earth or Bonfire of the Vanities, two books by men that are raved over and celebrated and I thought were garbage.

Double standards, perhaps?


Rayna said...

I remember really enjoying In Her Shoes by Jennifer Weiner when I read it a while ago, but I don't remember too many specifics. She's the only author (so far) whose twitter has made me want to read her work.

Also, I think the hardest I've EVER judged anyone was when I worked at Barnes and Noble and rang up a mother buying I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell for her son, who looked about 14. Ugh.

MJ said...

@Ranya: I'm glad I'm home alone because I just burst out laughing from the second part of your comment, and I do not think the hubby would understand.

I have to say that Maureen Johnson's tweets make me want to pick up one of her books. I haven't so far, but I'm sure I will before too long.

Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) said...

I think I'm the opposite -- reading JW's tweets has made me feel less like reading her books. Some of them seem so... defensive, maybe? I'm not sure. But the whole "chick lit" genre really isn't my thing. I don't like reading books where a romantic relationship is sort of the central factor, which is the sense (rightly or wrongly) I get from books like this one. But that could be totally unfair, and I should just read something to make a more informed judgement.

RebeccaK said...

I like chick lit too along with lots of other kinds of books-- travel memoirs, literary fiction, thrillers. I don't want to be a reading snob. This particular Weiner book (I'm halfway through) feels a little slight to me, but then I've only really liked two of her books (In Her Shoes and Little Earthquakes). I think it feels slight because I know it's a novel treatment of the NYT piece about a woman who used a surrogate.
As for the issue if sexism in book reviews, I applaud Weiner and Picoult for raising the issue.

MJ said...

@Kim: I actually don't follow Weiner on Twitter, but I see enough people tweeting and blogging about her that I get a sense of when there's something happening.

But part of the problem is that it's really easy to call her defensive, or accuse her of sour grapes, or belittle her books, all without actually listening to what she's saying. And what she's saying has merit. Institutionalized sexism does exist.

As far as her given genre, many of the chick-lit books I've read (which granted, aren't that many) do have a relationship angle. However, they're usually about a lot more than that. For example, there's a love interest in The Devil Wears Prada but it mainly deals with a young girl trying to make it in a stressful career. And in Then Came You the characters all have significant others, and there are some conflicts there, but the book as a whole deals more with how four women's lives intersect though bringing a child into the world.

Not saying that these books are for everyone. To each their own. All I know is that I'm trying to keep an open mind and be less judgmental or dismissive about people's reading choices, whatever they may be. I'll also continue to read books with an eye towards pointing out privilege in its many forms.

MJ said...

@Rebecca: Yay for not being a literary snob! I admit, I'm still in recovery ;-)

Danmark said...

I am a big fan of Jennifer Weiner so I was excited to read her latest. Although I liked the way she intertwined the characters, I was disappointed in the book in general. Not the depth of characterization that you usually see in Weiner's stories and it seemed to end too abruptly. If this book would have come from a first time writer, I believe it would have had to go through a re-write at the very least.