|Jennifer Weiner, arguably the most well-respected Chick Lit author in America, has somehow miraculously escaped the scorn most critics heap on this genre. Even ultra-hip Entertainment Weekly said her books are “smarter, more literary, more moving than you’d expect something labeled chick lit to be” and celebrated her “witty, smart and refreshingly un-glam novels.” While I’m glad she is earning critical praise, I’m afraid she is in the midst of a slump; her latest two books are decidedly inferior to her first two. Goodnight Nobody is a misguided attempt at a murder mystery that generates little suspense and shortchanges the character development that Weiner usually excels at. It features Weiner’s standard wisecracking, overweight Jewish heroine, originally exemplified by Cammie in Good in Bed, and basically replicated in the next two novels (Rose of In Her Shoes and Becky of Little Earthquakes). The heroine is still funny, but by now the shtick is getting a little repetitive.
Kate Klein isn’t sure when she became a nobody. Was it the birth of her three young children, the move from New York to suburban Connecticut, or the thousandth game of Candy Land? She drifts through the days, tired and unfulfilled. She also worries that she can’t hold a candle to the other moms in Upchurch, who all wear designer clothes to the playground, feed their children nutritious organic food, hold birthday parties with appearances by NBA players, and never seem resentful that they have nothing more meaningful to discuss than the student-teacher ratios at the best private schools. Kate feels like a criminal on the rare occasions when she stops at McDonalds to feed little Sophie, Jack and Sam.
When Kate discovers the dead body of Kitty Cavanaugh, the most beautiful and perfect of the Upchurch moms, she realizes the two women had a surprising mutual acquaintance: Evan McKenna, the man who broke Kate’s heart and sent her running towards a safe but unexciting marriage. Feeling both horrified and fascinated, Kate finds herself playing amateur detective, and with the help of Evan and her best friend Janie she uncovers shocking secrets about Kitty – and about several of the other Upchurch mommies and daddies as well. She also realizes that she has broken out of her stay-at-home-mom daze and is finally excited about her life again. But how much is Kate willing to risk to figure out the truth behind Kitty’s death – her marriage, her own safety, her children?
Weiner, the mother of a young child, nails perfectly the early years of parenting when the tedium and exhaustion can make any sane woman question the wisdom of her decision to procreate. She also captures the bitchy competitiveness that some parents display, making a simple birthday party with cake and ice cream seem an embarrassing failure. She doesn’t provide easy answers, but by the end of the novel Kate has begun to appreciate the importance of good parenting, take pride in her role and feel more comfortable with her instincts and practices.
Unfortunately, the other aspects of the novel don’t hold up as well. The mystery plot is amateurish and poorly executed. Kate is reduced to that “cozy mystery” habit of interviewing Kitty’s friends and family, asking them point-blank questions that should have earned her a quick kick out the door, if not bodily harm. The revelations she stumbles across would have been discovered easily with a little professional detective work, yet no one Kate interviews seems to have been contacted by Upchurch’s perfectly competent police chief. The identity of the murderer comes out of nowhere, leaving the reader scratching her head in frustration.
The addition of a mystery plot leaves less room for the character development and dynamics that highlight Weiner’s best work, most notably the relationship between the two diverse sisters from In Her Shoes. The kids are cute and Janie is the standard outrageous best friend. The two men in Kate’s life – husband Ben and former crush Evan – are sketchily portrayed, and readers who like tidy endings will be disappointed in the lack of resolution regarding Kate’s personal life. The other moms read like caricatures of the Stepford Wives crossed with Desperate Housewives – although to give Weiner credit, she wrote this book before the women of Wisteria Lane became so popular.
Goodnight Nobody is very funny at times, and it’s a quick, page-turning read. But if Weiner is going to be our patron saint of Chick Lit, she needs to return to the excellence of her earlier work. This one is no better than average.