Esther Kohler, the narrator of Leigh Stein’s debut novel, “The Fallback Plan,’’ is adjusting to life after four years of sanctioned playtime: “I had, somehow, managed to graduate with a theater degree from Northwestern,’’ she explains, “but without a job or a trust fund I had to choose between moving home and suffering the rancid fate of a nomadic couchsurfer.’’ Esther chooses the former, only to find that her suburban Illinois home is like a personalized hell: Her bedroom has been turned into a home theater, and her mother proposes that she help out in the garden for $8 an hour, an overture Esther compares to indentured servitude. She indulges elaborate fantasies of developing a chronic illness - “a mild one, nothing disfiguring’’ - that would entitle her to a government subsidy. Remembering the daydream later, she’s able to articulate the desire better: “I’d wanted the kind of blameless freedom that is given to the crippled, the grieving, children.’’
As her friends tour Europe and stage-manage plays, Esther exists in a sort of regressive haze, subsisting off handfuls of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Googling baby pandas when she’s bored, and taking recreational dosages of Vicodin left over from when she had her wisdom teeth removed. “After four years of college,’’ she admits, “I was exhausted by ideas, and secretly relieved to live at home because there were so few expectations.’’ Esther shirks even the most minimal responsibilities (paying highway tolls) but still finds the energy to try to hide her disregard (fiddling with the garage door opener and “making confused facial expressions’’ for the sake of the security cameras). Esther’s parents are made out to be walking receptacles for her oscillating emotions: unjustified rage, childlike tenderness, near-death irritation. In one scene, Esther reports the experience of teaching her dad Microsoft Word. “It only took two seconds,’’ she seems to almost sigh, “and he kept asking me to slow down so he could see what I was doing. I knew he wouldn’t remember anyway, so I didn’t.’’
Like any smart millennial, Esther has a self-deprecating awareness of her own entitlement. She talks to herself in the second person, berating the world for failing to meet her unrealistic requirements, however far-fetched she knows them to be. “Sofia Coppola should hire you as her personal assistant,’’ Esther tells herself at one point. Other times, her internal dialogue betrays any delusion that even she takes her expectations seriously: “You starred in a student film called ‘Russian Bride Zombies from Hell.’ You shouldn’t have to walk dogs or suffer from rheumatoid arthritis.’’
Esther finally finds a job baby-sitting for the Browns, a family that lives down the street. She quickly grows to adore her tiny preschool-age charge, May. But her duties extend beyond cutting off crusts and playing elaborate games of make-believe. She also becomes an intimate friend of May’s mother, Amy, and a sort of co-conspirer to May’s father, Nate. Triangulating the conflicting demands of the less-than-happy nuclear family forces Esther to articulate her morals, if even only to herself.
Though Esther’s entanglement in the Browns’ lives is the central plotline of the novel, Stein’s real skill is more atmospheric than expository. Through Esther’s unrelenting cynicism and constant attention to her own grievances, Stein captures what it’s like to be too old to live with your parents and have a former life seem suddenly foreign. “Why did we own so many TVs?’’ Esther wonders, walking around her newly remodeled childhood home. “I couldn’t understand it.’’ Almost half a decade living in college dorms can make an awestruck urchin of any middle-class kid.
For years, magazine stories and Judd Apatow movies have been chronicling the arrested development of 21st-century young adults, but only now is the culture being forced to grapple with the terrible economic climate into which these “extended adolescents’’ have matriculated. Stein’s use of the recession as a plot device is as clever as a trend-piece-to-book-transcription goes. Readers will endorse Esther Kohler’s voice as being not only funny, but also true. It echoes long after her story ends, and “The Fallback Plan’’ is a novel everyone under 30 will relate to with familiar pangs of self-loathing and sympathy.Alice Gregory can be reached at email@example.com.