Jennifer Weiner’s Shiksa Lit
Her heroines are Jewish, but the best-selling novelist is working—despite her protests—in a goyish genre
Weiner understands the game she has chosen to play, and she plays it well, abiding by all the familiar conventions that her readers have come to expect—from not just her books, but also from others like them. The chick lit heroine learns how to manage a hostile world, upgrading her standing in it while at the same time remaining true to whatever establishing eccentricities she’s been dealt. She is marginalized for some reason or other (not skinny enough in an office full of size-2 assistants, not rich enough for parties on Nantucket), and she is almost always “bookish”—which is a sympathetic shortcut if there ever was one, since her audience is, necessarily, made up of book-readers. True to form, Ruth Saunders winds up perfectly poised to succeed in Hollywood, her disfigured face, workhorse attitude, and geriatric confidante being the very qualities that immunize her against the destructive expectations of a notoriously vapid industry.
The one thing all Weiner’s heroines share is Judaism. In The Next Best Thing, Ruth Saunders, in the classic Weiner mold, is a lapsed Jew, her religion sprinkled like a mild seasoning throughout the book—dashes here and there—who hasn’t been to synagogue in half a decade, barely remembers to fast on Yom Kippur, and witnesses her grandmother brining a kosher turkey in a hot tub. Judaism is just another way for Weiner to handicap her protagonists and establish their outsider status, which is necessary if they’re going to observe their world and report back to us. The only conversations about Jewishness in the book that threaten to get at all serious concern Daphne, who is played by a “distinctly non-Semitic” actress whose heart-shaped face and strawberry blond hair make her look “about as Jewish as a ham sandwich.” When Ruth’s agent broaches the topic of renaming Daphne, she does so cryptically, but Ruth is able to read between the ellipses and understands that what’s wanted is a “less Jewish” name, and in turn main character. These oblique discussions (there’s another about cutting a line that hinges on Hadassah) end in compromise, but it looks an awful lot like concession. Weiner doesn’t freight these scenes with heavy-handed histrionics, which is a relief, but a more serious writer would imbue Ruth’s acquiescence with a more undignified constellation of emotions, and in turn we’d respect her more, but like her less.
In Fly Away Home, her 2010 novel about the wife of a philandering senator, Weiner persistently snarls together Jewishness and ambient exclusion. Sylvie Woodruff is a “fifty-seven-year-old professional dieter, a woman whose only real job … [is] staying twenty pounds thinner than she’d been in law school.” Weiner catalogs Sylvie’s “joyless meals” and describes the way she used to look, pre-D.C.-makeover: “big-busted, heavy-hipped,” tangled jewelry, tunics, fringed scarves. We’re meant to imagine the old Sylvie—the “real” Sylvie—as exotic and unruly; in the intervening years she’s had to assimilate—shrink her body, tame her hair. Though in the early days of her marriage, Sylvie’s young husband referred to her alternately as “My First Jew” and a “wild child,” both have learned that what Washington really wants is a WASP. Sylvie gives up her own career for the sake of her husband’s and trades real work for calorie-counting, but still her ethnicity isn’t ignored; her best friend and college roommate, after all, is a woman named Ceil, who Sylvie’s parents called “the shiksa princess.”
Weiner’s books are ahistorical, and they resist close reading. Though her heroines are Jewish, her books are not. Jewishness, in Weiner’s hands, is a token characteristic, one of many features meant to signal a protagonist’s difference. Ruth Saunders is Jewish, but she’s also physically unattractive (“lank, brown, unwashed” hair) and seldom seen without her elderly relative. Jewishness is not, for Weiner, a source of either reverence or anguish, pride or pain—she uses it, instead, to advance her goals as a genre writer.
Why exactly chick lit is “worse” than anything else isn’t always self-evident. Sure, there are sassy parentheticals, but chick lit, already a specious category, doesn’t usually telegraph its unseriousness on the sentence level. Instead, the clues come by way of character development. Best friends seem to exist only so they can pick up frantic phone calls; our narrator is never unreliable, and her intentions are always good. “I was a woman who’d lost her parents,” says Ruth at her story’s beginning, “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 dropped. In my twenty-eight years, I hadn’t gotten much. I deserved this.” Like her chick lit templates, Ruth has earned her victory, despite improbable odds and, presumably, our premade pity. When she triumphs we applaud her and ourselves for being on the side of someone so obviously imperfect. Never mind that her flaws are easy ones to forgive, because they’re never really her fault in the first place.
Despite her protestations, Weiner’s talents and critical reputation are like those of Alice Dembosky, Heshie’s love interest in Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. A drum majorette adored by the local community, Alice’s physical “genius” consists of suggestive baton-twirling; impressive leap-landing; and, ultimately, accidental bosom-burning. Both share a populist appeal, summed up in the words of Alex Portnoy as “precisely the kind of talent that only a goy would think to develop in the first place.”
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