Fiction author Jennifer Weiner is coming to Durango on Thursday, April 28, and I am excited!!!
Before this month, I’d only read one book by Jennifer Weiner, her novel In Her Shoes, which was turned into a movie in 2005. I found a copy of the book in a radiation clinic in 2012, while I was taking care of my uncle and he was receiving palliative radiation treatment for the cancer in his spine. In Her Shoes was on the “freebies shelf” at the clinic, so I picked it up and read it while I was waiting for him, and took it home with me and finished it.
Jennifer Weiner does MUCH more than pen novels though.
In February of 2015, she wrote an essay in The New York Times that I absolutely loved, and shared on my Facebook page at the time, titled “Great! Another Thing to Hate About Ourselves: From Sports Illustrated, the Latest Body Part for Women to Fix.”
And the way Jennifer Weiner stood up for herself after Jonathan Franzen made his snide comments about her, published in a New Republic essay in September 2013 was equally awesome. “What Jonathan Franzen Misunderstands About Me“ is one of those brilliant essays that shows any reader how insightful and clever Jennifer Weiner is.
So when I learned she was the visiting author for this year’s Durango Literary Festival, I wanted to read another novel of hers, and I’m SO glad I did, because the book I ended up reading was Best Friends Forever.
I found the book at the Methodist Thrift Store in town. The asking price was 25 cents, with 2 cents tax. I paid a dollar, then said, “Keep the change!” and felt like a big spender. You can’t even park in Durango for 27 cents — but you CAN buy really good books on the cheap here.
Best Friends Forever (published in 2009) is a really good book!
Likeable/sympathetic main characters? — CHECK.
Interesting plot? — CHECK.
Good writing? — CHECK.
Did I read every word? YES. I absolutely read every word. CHECK.
The opening pages start out with a bang, and then the plot drops to a low simmer, and takes time to rev up again. For me, with my mini-paperback copy, that occurred on page 61.
What happens on page 61? The main character, Addie Downs, remembers an impromptu road trip/vacation she took with her childhood best friend, Valerie Adler, when both girls were nine. Val’s mom inspired the trip, and took the wheel. They drove from Chicago to Cape Cod and back in a couple days. They slept in the car, they went to the beach, they tried to have a seafood dinner but had no money. So Val’s mother turned on the charm, and a young man at the restaurant that night ponied up the cash for their meal.
Here is a quote from their supper (p.68) —
“Chris Jeffries, the shellfish constable — for that was what he was, not a policeman, as I’d first thought — had paid for a feast. There was corn on the cob and clam chowder and red plastic net bags filled with gray clams that Val and her mother called steamers. There was coleslaw and French fries and a tangled mound of thin, crispy onion rings, tall wax paper cups brimming with ice and soda, and little plastic dishes filled with melted butter. A dozen oysters lolled slick in their shells on a bed of crushed ice, and two giant lobsters sprawled over oval-shaped plates, leaking steaming pale-pink water. I watched as Mrs. Adler opened a plastic bag of oyster crackers and sprinkled them into her soup.”
There is some more description of the bounty at the table, and what it’s like to devour seafood for the first time. Addie says (p.69) —
“I ate a whole bagful of steamers and an ear of corn drizzled with butter and sprinkled with grainy sea salt. I squeezed lemon onto a raw oyster and then, following Mrs. Adler’s example, tipped the rough edge of the shell to my lips and slurped out the liquor and the meat. After my first few clumsy tries, I got the hang of the metal nutcrackers and the tiny three-tined fork, prying chunks of pink-and-white flesh out of the lobster claws and dousing them with butter, too, amazed at the taste of the meat, light and rich and sweet.”
The girls go on to eat until they’re stuffed, and then have ice cream while Val’s mom and Chris Jeffries smoke and drink coffee. Later, the three of them sneak into Val’s grandfather’s house to spend the night, and Val’s mother steals some money from him to buy them bananas and doughnuts for breakfast. Then Val and Addie go clamming in a canoe they borrow from a stranger without asking (p.76) —
“Val and I sat in the middle of the canoe. Mrs. Adler pulled off her tank top to reveal a blue bikini top. She pushed us into the shallow water until the waves lapped at the hem of her shorts, then hopped into the boat and began to paddle, propelling us past sandbars thick with bright-green sawgrass and cattails, heading out to where the marsh gave way to the rippling dark-blue sea.”
I was so enchanted with the story by this point, I was holding my breath as I read. This is the kind of scene that makes me come most alive as a reader, when I’m blissed-out and delighted by the wonder of fiction.
Once the girls have filled two buckets with clams, they finally take a break (p.78) —
“Valerie and I lay side by side at the edge of the shore and let the incoming tide push the water over our toes… then our knees… then our hips, our waists, our chests. Finally, we floated, our hair waving in the current, hips and hands bumping as the waves lifted us and let us down, until Mrs. Adler pushed the canoe into the water and told us it was time to go.”
Which totally reminded me of the scene of the two young girls in the beginning of Mira Nair’s 1996 film, Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love, when they’re swimming together, twining around each other, and then later, as grown women, they’re once again in the water together, under far different circumstances.
Which is the same theme in Best Friends Forever — two childhood friends, driven apart by a man and other crap circumstances involving sexism and violence and society, who are reunited as adults to become friends again.
I give Best Friends Forever a full 5 stars for being a fun, quirky book with interesting characters and a plot that didn’t take me to an entirely predictable ending. I admit that the kissing scene in the end did gross me out, as all I could think about was how rank the man’s breath must smell, because he was hungover and bloody, having spent the night asleep in his car before smashing his face on the sidewalk and passing out. Since Addie has to lay him “on his side, so that he wouldn’t choke on his own vomit,” before he wakes up later and starts kissing her, all I could think was “someone get that bro a toothbrush and a shower” and a whole lot of “ewwwwww” and “please tell me there was no vomit.”
So that was very un-sexy, but then, the book doesn’t ever try to be sexy. The book is all about nostalgia and complicated memories and how people survive loss and pain. The book is GREAT. Sure, it falls into some common tropes, like the pretty girl has to be a ditz and the smart girl gets to fall in love — but what would fiction be, without a few tropes here and there? The question is not how many stereotypes a book can break, the question is how engaging the story is. And I was hooked by Addie, I loved her and cared deeply to find out what would happen to her.
And for that gorgeous scene in Cape Cod, I am KEEPING this book. My 27-cent copy now has a permanent home on my shelf. Because when a writer pens a scene that gorgeous, the whole book is a win.
I haven’t read a memory-scene that rich and gorgeous since Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2003 novel, The Namesake — which was also made into a film by Mira Nair.
The scene in the book I’m referring to begins on page 152 of the paperback, and I have it bookmarked because I read this scene at least once a year, but sometimes I reread it once a month. The worse my life gets sometimes, the more I need literature to keep me sane, keep me grounded in the beauty and thrill found only in words.
For those of you who’ve read the book, it’s the scene when Gogol and Maxine drive to northern New Hampshire, to Maxine’s family’s summer home. As soon as I open the book to page 152, my heart pounds with anticipation and pleasure. I’ve reread this scene so many times, it’s my reader-equivalent of every drug you could possibly pump into your body. Bliss, bliss, bliss.
The beginning lines (all told from Gogol’s point of view) —
“It is the opposite of how they live in New York. The house is dark, a bit musty, full of primitive, mismatched furniture. There are exposed pipes in the bathrooms, wires stapled over doorsills, nails protruding from beams.”
Oh man, do those lines get my blood racing. My own nostalgia and memories rise up, my own fondest moments from childhood, from summertime, from vacations, as well as all the joy I’ve always felt reading this particular scene, the rustic appeal of this setting, this old-fashioned home in lake country.
“Checkered curtains hang in the windows on thin white rods. Instead of staying with Gerald and Lydia, he and Maxine sleep in an unheated cabin down a path from the main house. No bigger than a cell, the space was originally built for Maxine to play in when she was a girl. There is a small chest of drawers, a crude night table between two twin beds, a lamp with a plaid paper shade, two wooden chests in which extra quilts are stored.”
Can you see this house and its cabin? Can you feel it?
“During the day he sits with Maxine’s family on a thin strip of beach, looking out onto the glittering jade lake, surrounded by other homes, overturned canoes. Long docks jut into the water. Tadpoles dart close to shore.”
“Some nights, when it’s too warm in the cabin, he and Maxine take a flashlight and walk to the lake in their pajamas to go skinny-dipping. They swim in the dark water, under the moonlight, weeds catching their limbs, out to the neighboring dock. The unfamiliar sensation of the water surrounding his unclothed body arouses Gogol, and when they come back to shore they make love on the grass that is wet from their bodies. He looks up at her, and behind her, at the sky, which holds more stars than he ever has seen at one time, crowded together, a mess of dust and gems.”
The scene focuses on nature, on the simplicity of their lives at this cabin, eating homemade preserves on thick slices of bread, watching the sun set behind the mountains, hanging their bathing suits up to dry on a line.
They listen to symphony and jazz on an old stereo. They play cribbage. They are often in bed by nine.
“Dinners are simple: boiled corn from a farm stand, cold chicken, pasta with pesto, tomatoes from the garden sliced and salted on a plate. Lydia bakes pies and cobblers with berries picked by hand.”
If there is a heaven on earth, this house at this lake, surrounded by mountains, has got to be it. I find heaven in this scene. The words bring euphoria, no matter how many times I have read them. The joy is only enhanced, never tarnished from overuse. The gift of a really good book.
Which was exactly how I felt reading about summertime Cape Cod in Best Friends Forever.
So I’m absolutely tickled that Jennifer Weiner will be in Durango at the end of the month!! Meeting authors and listening to them speak is JOY.
And if you have a favorite scene in a book that you return to again and again, I’d love to know what it is — especially if it’s in a book I haven’t read yet! I never grow tired of discovering my next great read, or locating books with excellent scenes — bliss, bliss, bliss.