The Next Best Thing

By Jennifer Weiner

A few nights ago we went to Tarifa for New Year’s Eve. From our balcony in Casares we usually can see the mountain of Jebel Musa in Morocco hiding behind Gibraltar, but we never sense exactly how close Africa is until we drive to Tarifa. It was dark as drove and as we approached the ‘mirador del estrecho’ we could see the lights of Tangier sparkling across the water. So close, so close you could just reach out and…

You think about the people of Tangier looking across the water and seeing the sparkling lights of Tarifa and how close it seems. For us Tangier is the gateway to Africa, continent of mystery, adventure…an other world. For them, what do they look over and see? Wealth, opportunity, a better life, perhaps a chance worth chasing?

A few years ago we visited the beautiful Cabo de Gata in Almeria. We took a wrong turn along the way and ended up deep in the land of plastic sheeting and hothouses. Due to the climate the landscape is covered with plastic covered structures where vegetables are being grown to be shipped all across Europe. It seemed as we we’d come onto a corner of Africa because of both the people and the slum like conditions. I wondered how many of the people working there had come across on a boat from Tangier to the Costa de la Luz and whether in the end it was worth it. I don’t know what the answers are, but it’s not something that can be ignored.

Now it seems a little bit trite to return to my book buying habits, but when I was home at Christmas I picked up a book ‘Leaving Tangier’ by Tahar Ben Jelloun about a boy in Tangier who wants to leave. An older Spanish guy promises to take him to Barcelona if he will be his lover. I wanted to buy it, but that would go against my resolution. I carried it around Hodges Figgis until my pile had got too big, my arms were getting sore and I couldn’t think of anybody for whom I could pretend I was buying it was a present. So let’s just say it’s one for the list.

In the run up to Christmas I spent time in 6 different bookshops over 3 days and I only caved and bought one book for myself: ‘Memories of the Future’ by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. I can’t really say why I bought this one above ‘Leaving Tangier’ or any of the others I picked up and forced myself to put down again. It was just a moment of weakness. All in all, I bought the following:

For my Dad: The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin, Memory Man by Jimmy Magee, Brian Boru and the Battle of Clontarf by Sean Duffy, The Battle of Clontarf, Good Friday 1014 by Darren McGettigan

For my Mam: Philomena by Martin Sixsmith, Brian D’Arcy’s Food for the Soul

For my Father in Law: Beatsploitation by Kevin Curran, Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin

For my Mother in Law: The Little Book of Christmas Memories

For my Sister in Law: The Next Best Thing by Jennifer Weiner

For my brother: The Barefoot Emperor: An Ethiopian Tragedy by Philip Marsden, Berlin Tales

For my sister’s boyfriend: Mr Penumbra’s 24 hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

For my husband: The Collini Case by Ferdinand von Schirach, Cockroaches by Jo Nesbo, Norwegian by Night by Derek B.Miller and Death in Breslau by Marek Krajewski. I also bought ‘The end of the World in Breslau’ before I realised it was part of a series and not the first book, so I suppose he’ll find he has that one as a present too, which he’ll realise either when he reads this or finishes the first one, whichever happens first.

I was a big fan of ‘In her Shoes’ and can’t really remember ‘Good in Bed’ but I think I enjoyed it. Jennifer Weiner seemed to write a slightly higher quality of chicklit than most others. So when I saw this one on sale I thought ‘oh that could be a nice present for my sister-in-law. I was getting books for the rest of the family so didn’t want to leave anybody out. And ok, I thought I could read it really quickly before. Now, ten days after Christmas I regret that I gave it. While I was reading it I thought ‘this isn’t really as good as I remember the other books being. Am I just being too critical?’ But I put it down to having read too much chicklit over the years and being deadened to it. So I went ahead, wrapped it and presented it as planned. The more the days pass, though, the more I regret my decision. I’m half hoping that it just ends up on a shelf and is ignored like many of the books I give as presents.

I wasn’t long into this when I realised that the author herself must have had a failed TV show and of course that is the case. At first I thought that she just took this idea of a failed sitcom writer and used that as a template, but everything about the show in the book seems to have been copied from ‘The State of Georgia’. The faded child star (actually I can’t remember if the actress in the book had been a failed child star, or just washed out in general but that was the impression I got) who is supposed to be curvy but loses weight between shooting the pilot and the rest of the series, the living with an older female relative, the replacement of the actress playing this relative between the pilot and full season etc. The book seems to have been written as an apology for how her series turned out and basically is saying that if she’d had her way it could have been so much better.

I’ve seen some excerpts on YouTube (all in the interest of research) and I have to say I can understand why it wasn’t renewed and I say that as somebody who has got addicted to some really crappy TV in the past. For example, watching those clips did remind me of my fondness for Roswell back in the day, considering these two shows share an actress. I actually first read the books, splitting my time between that triangle of bookshops that used to exist on Dawson Street when I should have been studying in the library across the road. Next I had to watch the TV Series, next I fell into the wormhole of and was hooked.

I’ve no problem with somebody using aspects of their real life in fiction. I’m sure if I ever get down to it I’ll do that too, but there doesn’t seem to be much else to the story, as if JW just wasn’t into it. She just wanted to write this to explain what went wrong. You know, I found some aspects of the creation of the show quite interesting, though I’ve no idea how true to life it all is. It does seem like she really wanted to write an expose of the industry but instead used it in this.

The story outside the story didn’t really move me at all. Maybe my senses have just been dulled since reading ‘In her Shoes’ but there might be a reason why, even though Jennifer Weiner has written over 10 books  she is still always described as the ‘author of “In Her Shoes” and “Good in Bed”.’ I remember going to see ‘In her Shoes’ with my sister. We’ve had our moments, though I can’t say either of us ever betrayed the other as badly as in that story, but there was still a connection, as if reading/watching it I just felt ‘yes, that is exactly what sisterhood is like.’

Here, the characters have been through a lot, but I never really connected with them. In those other books the heroines were never perfect and that helped us empathise with them, but Ruth just seemed too whiny. Yes, something bad happened to her, but it seemed to be the only thing to define her.

I’m trying to send vibes to my SIL back in Wicklow. Don’t read it!


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