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Not Molly Bloom, But Still...

Film star-turned-novelist Molly Ringwald.

So, Molly Ringwald. Most famous of course for her career as an actress, yes? No one can forget her starring roles in Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985), and Pretty in Pink (1986), John Hughes’s three films that defined teen life in the 1980s. We might expect Ringwald to spend her adulthood disavowing her earlier work not because it is bad but because of its utter ubiquity. After all, how can she blossom into the moneymaking multimedia mogul she was meant to be if the rest of the world expects her to act like her doe-eyed onscreen persona?

When it Happens to You

by Molly Ringwald

It Books, August 2012

And yet she has remained remarkably sane-seeming and pleasant, and When It Happens to You, her “novel in stories,” is an endearing, not-too-well-written-but-still-readable testament to that. Published just a few weeks ago, it is her second book after 2010’s significantly more baby-names-and-bubblegum Getting the Pretty Back: Friendship, Family, and Finding the Perfect Lipstick, a “memoir and girlfriend-y guide to girlfriend-y things—style, food, relationships, motherhood.”

When It Happens to You tells in eight stories the tale of Greta and Phillip Parris (Phillip changed the family name from Perez to “lessen the ire reserved for Hispanics and African Americans back then, before it was transferred to Middle Easterners”) and their daughter Charlotte as they try to weather the warm and stormy impatient (and adulterous) years.

The structure of the novel is actually pretty interesting. None of the stories has the same main character, and characters from elsewhere in the book often reappear in minor roles. So for instance the first, “The Harvest Moon,” is from the perspective of Greta; the next story follows Ilse, Greta’s mother; and the next tells the story of Marina, the mother of Charlotte’s friend Oliver. This is perhaps one of the aspects of the text that prompted Eleanor Henderson, author of a book I’ve never heard of called Ten Thousand Saints, to destroy her credibility and say, “Molly Ringwald’s eight electric stories are alive with Joycean insight.” I’m presuming Henderson is maybe referencing the interconnectedness of the plot lines in Dubliners and Ulysses. And to be fair, criticizing a promotional blurb for being promotional makes about as much sense as railing against Apple for saying every new iPhone is the most insanely revolutionary thing ever: What are they supposed to do, tell you it’s average? But still, James Joyce is one of the most important figures in English literature and you don’t need to be Harold Bloom to know that Molly Ringwald has little in common with him aside from occasional shallow stylistic similarities.

It would be unfair if I did not criticize Ringwald for her writing, though even as I write this I want to excuse her. After all, this is her first published work of fiction and despite her apparent lack of training as a writer (in the book’s acknowledgments she thanks her husband Panio Gianopoulos for being, among other things, “my MFA program”), her humility and wisdom about the human family come through clearly in the text. But that does not change the fact that this book is not well written. Five pages in we get, “It nearly made her cry from the tenderness.” Forty pages later, “Pain, regret, and guilt mingled just under the surface, the aggregate of all her profound sadness.” A child receives “a big ol’ testosterone-laden present” for Christmas and people kiss each other “timidly at first and then with an intensity that was visceral in its desire.” And about halfway through we get what appears to be an explicit refutation of writing workshop directive that one should show, not tell: “‘Luckily, I rented my old apartment to a…friend, and she called me.’ Betty noticed the way her daughter hesitated when she said the word ‘friend,’ understanding that she was more than a friend.” There are also occasional tense inconsistencies and small grammatical errors.

But this isn’t the end of the world! When It Happens to You still has its virtues and they will be appreciated by most readers. Ringwald’s project is genuinely affecting. The story of the relationship between Greta and Phillip (love, marriage, infidelity, and the possibility of redemption) is one in which anyone can find truth. The author uses free indirect discourse to tell her characters’ stories and that saves her from performing what would have probably been mediocre impersonations. Instead we get generally interesting stories about mostly interesting people that read pretty well and sometimes made me want to cry. The best story is probably the seventh, “Mea Culpa,” in which we follow Phillip as he comes to terms with the magnitude of his marital transgressions. His character is believable and his position is compellingly painful.

Ringwald’s real strength in When It Happens to You is her ability to portray honestly life in the American home. When it comes to Charlotte and Oliver, the two children who figure prominently in the novel, she is right on the money: the weird things kids do, the strange and sometimes uncomfortable events in childhood development (e.g. when Charlotte, apropos of nothing, kisses both of her babysitter’s breasts in front of her parents) that many writers would happily shy away from mentioning. Oliver’s story is especially noteworthy because he maintains, from a very young age, that he is a woman and he demands that his mother call him Olivia. While the violence he eventually suffers seems forced and too convenient, the social issues he and his mother experience ring true.

Regarding maternity Ringwald is clearly a unique addition to the canon, unerringly faithful to the reality of her own experience. To anyone who thought Ayelet Waldman’s Bad Mother (2010) was your last shot at representation, give When It Happens to You a look. It is significantly more enjoyable to read and it contains none of Waldman’s febrile vitriol.

But you don’t have to be a mom to enjoy this book. I’m not a mom and I enjoyed a lot of it. It has its drawbacks, but they are mostly excusable. At the end of the day it just made me think Molly Ringwald is probably a very nice, smart person. It’s not the best fiction, but it sure isn’t the worst.

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