Molly Ringwald calls it “the art of deception as preservation.” Amy Sohn lets it speak for itself.
But the bottom line in both authors’ new novels is that deceit, of any size or stripe, simply doesn’t do well over time.
In Sohn’s “Motherland” this plays out amusingly – as she satirizes the mothers (and fathers) of Brooklyn’s Park Slope, land of yuppies and baby strollers. It also plays well in Ringwald’s “When It Happens to You,” but in quite another way.
And here you have to hand it to Ringwald – who, to many of us, has been frozen in time as the teen heroine of such ’80s movies as “Sixteen Candles” and “The Breakfast Club.” Yet, as the author of “When It Happens to You: A Novel in Stories,” she is obviously all woman, and an insightful one at that.
Her novel-in-stories may not be a prize-winner, but its quick and earnest pieces are right up there with the better stories found in women’s magazines of an earlier era – and her characters are, with a couple of exceptions, believable. In particular, Greta whose marriage to Phillip is disintegrating at the same time as the couple is attempting to conceive a second child.
When Greta, crestfallen, speaks of “the marriage (she) had but didn’t have,” her meaning is heartbreakingly clear. Similarly – when Phillip seeks out a brother he hasn’t seen in years – he is told, “You can tell me all the details. Or none of them. OK? I’m here,” and we are struck by the sparseness of Ringwald’s dialogue.
Yes, her prose can be awkward but her characters know how to talk (and may reflect Ringwald’s training as an actor: pause and effect, not too little, not too much). She has a wry wit and an eye for externals – but her focus here is primarily on perception.
One touching story, “The Little One,” concerns Greta and Phillip’s 6-year-old daughter, Charlotte, and their elderly next-door neighbor, Betty. A small misinterpretation convinces Charlotte that Betty’s late husband, Harry, is still alive – and Betty finds herself not only loath to dissuade Charlotte but cheered enough by the idea to indulge both herself and the child in the fantasy:
“It was a ruse that she often used with herself – the putting off till the next time, and then the next, until the awkwardness of telling became too great and she could rest permanently in the solace of omission.”
Another moving story – “The Places You Don’t Walk Away From” – deals with the embryos Greta and Phillip still have in storage in a West Coast facility:
“Phillip had said that he would agree to release them into the world for other families to adopt, and while this seemed the most practical and generous solution, Greta knew if she consented, it would eventually drive her mad … She knew that until the day she died, she would never stop looking for the face of her own child in the eyes of strangers …”
This is Ringwald’s first foray into fiction, and it comes with the (perhaps unfair) suspicion that, were she not well-known, we wouldn’t be reading her – yet. But she has real promise, a certain je ne sais quoi that imbues her work, in places, with surprising charm. Plus, some of her characters have real staying power.
The same cannot be said for the thirtysomething mothers (and fathers) of Sohn’s “Motherland,” a sequel to her earlier Park Slope novel, “Prospect Park West.” Most of these are the same self-involved characters of the first novel – awash in subterfuge, drawn to illusion, and all-too-intent on fitting square pegs into round holes.
Sohn draws them cleverly, if interchangeably, as ultra-hip neighbors whose lives are often in (self-imposed) chaos. A family-tree template is necessary to keep them all straight – and, if Sohn wasn’t frequently quite funny, it wouldn’t be worth it.
But quite funny she is – and so we go willingly into, in the words of a gay father named Marco, “the land of child-bearing and nurturing, and non-stop care.” This is Motherland, a place where Marco (an alcoholic “agnostic Puerto Rican half-Jew”) feels imprisoned.
But it is the land of Park Slope and, by extension, the land of many mothers in today’s child-centric culture. Marco calls it “matriarchal monotony.” But then Marco is an English teacher and notices these things while his compatriots in Motherland simply follow the leader, stroller after stroller.
Helene, an elderly longtime Sloper, notices, too, musing, “These young mothers didn’t care that anything or anyone had been in the neighborhood before they were. They were like vermin, they could not stop populating, the children were for their pleasure only, there was no consciousness of a greater society. They had conquered the streets in all stages of child rearing – flaunting their pregnancies, openly nursing their babies, taking up Seventh Avenue with their strollers. Half the time the strollers were unoccupied – the children were wandering the width of the sidewalk while the mothers pushed empty vessels …”
It is the strollers that push Helene over the edge, sending the old woman on a mission that will become a sort of leitmotif for the book: Helene (whose last name is Buzzi so we know who Sohn would have play the part) simply sets out to steal the strollers. Here and there. A few at a time. It is a masterful ploy, and pulls whatever plot there is together.
For the story here is a mishmash, the stuff of overdone prime time. We have Rebecca, owner of a vintage clothing store, who is married to Theo, an architect, and who hasn’t told Theo that their year-old child, Benny, is not his. No. Benny is the child of Stuart, a famous filmmaker who is married to Melora who is about to be cast opposite Jon Hamm in a stage play.
(Hamm doesn’t fare well at the hand of Sohn who portrays him as snide and condescending, hardly a team player. His is one of many celebrity names dropped here, a preoccupation of Sohn’s Slopers.)
Then there is Gottlieb, a surfer and would-be screen-writer married to CC, a Korean-American stay-at-home Mom, and Andy, who appears in commercials, and his former ballerina wife, Joanne, and Karen whose husband has left her and for whom she soon finds a substitute, plus the afore-mentioned Marco whose husband Todd talks him into adopting a second son, driving Marco to Grindr, an app that provides him with real-time hook-ups while Todd is at work.
Some of the characters will vacation in Wellfleet, and Gottlieb and Andy will go to L.A. We will learn variously that, in gentrified Park Slope, “the junkies had been more polite than the yuppies;” “the problem with the world was no one needed directions anymore,” and that “it was impossible to imagine the crowd at Max’s Kansas City in 1970 calling their parents.”
None of this is edifying, just a smile along life’s way – or perhaps a windfall for some future anthropologist.
When It Happens to You: A Novel in Stories
By Molly Ringwald
240 pages, $24.99
By Amy Sohn
Simon & Schuster
341 pages, $25
Karen Brady is a retired News columnist.