Jennifer Weiner is a “proud and happy writer of popular fiction,” a fact she broadcasts repeatedly in her memoir “Hungry Heart: Adventures in Life, Love, and Writing.” The author of such best-selling chick-lit novels as “Good in Bed” and “In Her Shoes” taught herself to read at age 4. She graduated from Princeton University. She sold her first novel for “the staggering sum of $550,000.” She’s a champion of plus-size women. Oh, and she’s been married not once, but “TWICE!” (emphasis hers).
But Weiner is, above all, a paradox with an acid pen, which makes her memoir a frustrating read. The book is a curious mix of autobiography along with parenting tips, self-help sections, previously published articles and essays, and selections from her Twitter feed. She spends the first quarter of the book recalling an unhappy childhood in Simsbury, Conn., an upscale suburb. As a Jewish girl who didn’t fit into the beautiful, blonde, size-zero mold, she never felt comfortable and didn’t have friends. The Mean Girls shunned her. She was a “loser, a misfit, a freak” and felt like “the love child of Jabba the Hutt and Moby Dick after a month at the all-u-can-eat buffet.”
The scars ran deep, and Weiner is a sympathetic character at first, but only momentarily. While she recalls studying the “princesses of my class, the Missys and the Courtneys, the Rachels and the Kims,” she also resorts to Mean Girl talk herself. In the same breath as she complains about her own pain, she knocks down a girl “with large breasts and an adorable stammer” and another who had “such terrible breath that it smelled like she had eaten trash.” She recalls mocking a student who had trouble reading aloud by asking her, “How are you enjoying your time in our country?” Ouch.
Weiner wants to have it both ways: Pity the poor outcast, but watch her lash back with equal venom. She takes the same approach with her relationships with men. She channels Adele in “Someone Like You” when she describes stalking an ex, yet then she dismisses a man she rejected by writing, “It was like eating low-calorie chocolate yo-fro when you really want gelato.” Ouch. Again.
That annoying snarkiness distracts from the real pain of a culture in which beauty is defined by Madison Avenue, and women are judged and turned into objects by beauty pageant impresarios. But even here the paradox deepens. After graduating from Princeton, Weiner worked her way up from small-town newspapers to a job as a feature writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer. There, she lobbied to cover the Miss America pageant. She later served as a judge. This is a woman who thinks her novels are political because they are about “fat women getting the guy,” but enjoys dissing the evening gown competition. She wants it both ways.
Weiner’s double standard makes it hard to sympathize with the sections of the book that would be moving without all the Mean Girl stuff. Her father, a prominent psychiatrist, abandoned the family, leaving Weiner’s mother alone to raise four children. “[W]hat he broke was our life; the illusion of us as a happy, normal family,” she writes. It’s painful territory, especially when Weiner recalls her father’s ultimate self-destruction. And the section about her dog’s death sings with honesty.
But she comes close to flippant when she discusses her mother coming out as a lesbian. Her mother, she writes, parks “on the alternate side of the sex street.” She describes her mother’s partners as walking, talking stereotypes, and there is no attempt to understand the kinds of conflicts the woman who bore her must have endured.
The memoir comes off as Weiner’s attempt to use her gift for language as a way to get back, rather than to reach deep understanding and resolution. She brushes over her weight-loss surgery, which is rich for mining. She seems to be trying so hard to get back at all those Courtneys and Kims that she can’t probe honestly into difficult territory. She says she used her second novel to write “about being stuck with the label your family gave you as a girl and growing out of it, or into it.” After 400 pages, it’s not clear if she really has. This is a paradoxical mix of genuine pain and bravado, and unfortunately, the suffering gets lost in the swagger.
Adventures in Life, Love, and Writing
By Jennifer Weiner
Atria, 402 pp., $27
Patti Hartigan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.