In her bubbly new novel, Certain Girls, Jennifer Weiner achieves the nearly impossible: She makes being a fat, middle-aged woman in America appear not just acceptable but positively delightful. At 42, ”festively plump” narrator Cannie Shapiro is so comfortable in her skin, so happily immersed in her busy life mixing matzoh balls, driving her daughter’s car pool, and writing science-fiction novels, that it doesn’t register as pathetic when she eats ice cream straight out of the tub. It’s just dessert. Her high-waisted, plus-size panties are as sexy as thong underwear (or at least her dreamy doctor husband seems to think so), and her wry self-acceptance is infinitely more enviable than the ability to fit into a pair of size-2 jeans.
Cannie was not always so centered. When introduced in Weiner’s breakout 2001 hit, Good in Bed, she was an insecure twentysomething journalist with a quirky Jewish family, a quick wit, and a caddish boyfriend, Bruce, who knocked her up and ran off to the Netherlands. He also wrote a humiliating magazine article about their intimate relations titled ”Loving a Larger Woman.” Cannie was appealing as a lovelorn career girl, but she’s even more likable as a sanguine matron with a minivan and a Crock-Pot. ”It was, perhaps, the one good thing about never having been beautiful — you didn’t have to kill yourself trying to hold on to something you’d never had in the first place,” Cannie reflects. Now that she’s married to Peter Krushelevansky, her primary concern is finding a surrogate mother to carry their baby. (Thanks to the melodramatic medical crisis that closed Good in Bed, Cannie can no longer bear children.) Candidate No. 1: her ditzy sister, Elle, whose selfishness is efficiently, if reductively, conveyed by her physique — ”lean as a whippet, tanned and waxed, manicured and pedicured, without a single stretch mark or stray hair.”
Cannie can live without the whippet. But Cannie’s 12-year-old daughter, Joy — who narrates the comparatively weak alternating chapters — worships her glamorous aunt. Joy also worries incessantly about her frizzy hair, her upcoming bat mitzvah (Grease for the theme — or maybe Hairspray?), and how to infiltrate the popular crowd at school. Her main concern? Distancing herself from her mother.
The overlapping narratives ramble agreeably for a couple hundred pages, until Weiner seems to realize the book actually has to go somewhere. Hence, a tragic, overly abrupt twist that transforms a talky fairy tale into a gooey weeper. Best not to invest too deeply in the tatty plotting, and just enjoy the charisma of Cannie’s earthy and mature female voice. B