|Jennifer Weiner’s first two novels defied easy classification as Chick Lit; despite their young, urban heroines, they were much deeper and meaningful than that label implies. So it is with no small amount of dismay that I report that Weiner’s latest release, Little Earthquakes, reads exactly like the latest literary trend, Mommy Lit, no more and no less. It’s a well-written novel but it’s sadly predictable and does nothing to leave a lasting impression on the reader.
A friendship forms among three very different women who share a prenatal yoga class. The first to give birth is Ayinde Towne, a beautiful bi-racial newscaster married to an NBA superstar. Next to go is Kelly Day, a perky blonde events planner with a successful businessman husband. Finally, it’s time for Becky Rothstein-Rabinowitz, a plump wisecracking chef whose adoring husband is a surgeon. All three women were thrilled to become pregnant and have idealized views of how perfect their lives will be as new mothers.
Of course, motherhood is many things but perfect is not one of them. Ayinde, determined to do a better job than her own absentee parents, throws herself into the role with heart and soul despite the availability of assistants and nannies. When marital troubles erupt in a very public way, Ayinde realizes that dogged devotion to motherhood has a price. Kelly also wants to make up for a less than ideal childhood, so when her husband is unexpectedly laid off from his high-paying job, she tries to do it all, becoming an exhausted, angry working mother in the process. Becky has fewer childhood issues to resolve; the bane of her existence is her self-centered, demanding, mother-in-law and her sweet but passive husband’s inability to stand up for himself in the face of her smothering behavior. A late addition to the group is sad-eyed Lia Frederick, haunted by a recent tragedy but unable to stay away from the three new mothers.
Weiner, who became a first-time mother recently, deals with some important issues, primarily the disconnect between the ideal motherhood and the real thing. Caring for a newborn baby is hard, and it poses challenges for even the strongest marriages as the partners deal with new roles, tremendous stress and split loyalties. Kelly, in particular, illustrates a common problem – she claims to want her husband’s help in caring for their son Oliver, but between her own control issues and her anger about his unemployment, she criticizes his efforts and ends up doing everything by herself – and resenting him even more. Weiner shows all sides of the first year of parenthood – the complete and all-consuming love going hand in hand with exhaustion and frustration, the moments of serene oneness during nursing battling with crying and sleep deprivation.
There’s also a healthy dose of humor, primarily through the efforts of Becky (“I don’t like futons. They can’t commit. I’m a bed! I’m a couch!”), who seems closest to Weiner’s own personality. Like several of Weiner’s heroines, Becky also has to deal with her body image issues, as doctors treat her harshly because of her weight and friends don’t even realize she’s pregnant.
But the novel never approaches the heights of Weiner’s earlier efforts, especially her sophomore release In Her Shoes. The focus on four main characters allows less time for detailed characterization, and the challenges the women face, although realistic, are predictable. Perhaps motherhood has mellowed Weiner and given her more of a rosy (or tired) outlook on life. I enjoyed reading Little Earthquakes, but the characters are not likely to linger long in my memory, and I have no desire to go back and re-read any notable passages.
I give Weiner credit for not sugarcoating motherhood – babies are indeed “little earthquakes” that change everything around them. Weiner hasn’t seen anything yet, though – let’s see her write another novel 12 years from now about her main characters dealing with their babies’ adolescence. Those earthquakes will be a lot bigger by then.