Monday, December 11, 2017
Books

Review: In 'The Next Best Thing' by Jennifer Weiner, art imitates life imitates art

Ruth Saunders' dreams are about to come true, and she's due for good luck: "I was a woman who'd lost her parents, who'd survived a dozen surgeries and emerged with metal implants in my jaw, the right side of my face sunken and scarred, and an eye that drooped."

Ruth's dream is to create a sitcom based loosely on the story of herself and the grandmother who raised her from age 3. In Jennifer Weiner's capable hands, The Next Best Thing is a knockout: perfect comic timing meets effortless dialogue and an engaging plot.

Weiner was co-creator and executive producer of ABC Family's State of Georgia, which got canceled after one season, so she knows of what she speaks. The story is slightly farfetched, but Ruth is so likable and dedicated in her ascent to showrunner that no one can begrudge her success.

The novel, Weiner's 10th book, opens as Ruth awaits word on whether a fictional network will shoot the pilot for her show, The Next Best Thing. Six years earlier, recently out of college, she moved with her grandmother from Massachusetts to Los Angeles to try to make a life as a writer. Ruth eventually became an assistant for two producers who became her mentors. Between jobs, she helped high school kids craft college essays and lonely seniors find love online (while her personal search for love is complicated by naivete and insecurity).

Though she's intensely vulnerable and easily wounded, Ruth is feisty. Taking after her grandmother, she has a sharp tongue and quick wit, describing the stereotypical Hollywood woman as "an ageless, aerobicized hardbody who wore designer suits and high heels and could be anywhere between 35 and 60 but would never, under penalty of death, look a day older than 40."

Ruth is heartbroken when the network wants the sitcom grandmother to become more bawdy. Other disappointing changes pile up, until Ruth's creation barely resembles the original script that called for a normal-sized girl, self-respecting grandma and story with heart.

While the fate of the sitcom rests with ratings, Ruth creates for herself a more perfect future and fulfills the vow she (and, one can assume, Weiner) once made: "Somehow I would find a way to write for a living when I grew up. I'd find a way to use my voice, funny-mean and observant, to earn my keep, to make myself a place in the world."

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