I wondered, as I opened “When It Happens to You,” a novel in stories by Molly Ringwald, just how long it would take for me to forget the author was the actress who made me wish I was a redhead, the one who gave Judd Nelson her earring at the end of “The Breakfast Club,” the one who now makes me feel old when I occasionally see her playing one of the moms on “The Secret Life of the American Teenager.”
One chapter? Two? Maybe then I’d forget that I was reading a book written by the queen of the Brat Pack?
It actually didn’t take that long.
Most people who buy Ringwald’s fiction debut will probably do so because they grew up watching her movies, but if they actually read the book they should forget she wrote it on the first page, when a frustrated wife and mother named Greta is stretched out on the bathroom floor attempting to zip up a pair of ill-fitting pants so that she might look nice in just one photo with her husband.
WHEN IT HAPPENS TO YOU
Ringwald’s characters are all too real, and not at all pretty in pink.
“Now any photo seemed to be taken from their six-year-old daughter’s height — hardly a flattering angle: the upward tilt of Greta’s crooked smile, and the heavy lower lids of Phillip’s distracted and vaguely startled eyes, as though he didn’t quite expect to find himself there.”
Greta and Phillip sit at the nexus of Ringwald’s collection of empathetic, closely observed tales, which chronicle the couple’s infidelity and all who are affected, from the unassuming neighbor who winds up entertaining a child of separation, to the poor, flailing rebounds, who turn out to be the most magnetic characters in the book.
You never quite know which characters will turn out to be connected, and I won’t spoil it, but the most memorable are a single mom named Marina, whose son believes he’s meant to be a girl, and Peter, a Yale-trained actor who winds up a disgraced children’s television star.
Peter’s story is the only real wink from Ringwald about her own past in the entertainment business. She writes a beautifully comedic and awkward plane scene, in which Peter is bumped to first class by a group of rude stewardesses who demand that he sign autographs for their kids.
Ringwald writes, “He felt as though he had never before paid so much for a ticket in his life.”
I’m sure Ringwald has found herself in the same traps, perhaps surrounded by fans at malls quoting lines from “Sixteen Candles.”
If only those fans knew that Ringwald’s mind has been occupied by tales of loss, humor, suburban angst, and parental helplessness — the stuff of Tom Perrotta and Meg Wolitzer novels.
The only major flaw in “When It Happens to You” is Ringwald’s ending. The book’s strength is as a beautiful collection of character studies, but when Ringwald makes a small attempt at closure, it doesn’t quite work. Best to keep all of these floating characters up in the air where they belong.
Ringwald recently told the Globe that she plans to turn this one into a movie. She said she’d happily play Marina, the one character she allowed to have red hair. I’m skeptical, but I should know better. Ringwald released a notable book while starring on a television show, for which she sings the theme song (yes, she also sings). If she wants to make a movie, she most certainly will.