Weiner's latest inspired by TV disappointment

July 15th, 2012

Weiner‘s latest inspired by TV disappointment

July 15, 2012 3:00 am  •  Diane LaRue, Special to The Citizen

Jennifer Weiner is the author of nine previous novels, and last year she co-wrote and produced a show for ABC Family titled “State of Georgia” about a young woman who moved to New York with her best friend to try and make it on her own.

The show had some bumps along the road, including the star who was supposed to be a normal-looking girl: curvy, not stick-thin like most Hollywood versions of what women should look like. Unfortunately, the star they hired, Raven Simone, decided that she wanted to lose weight and things fell apart from there.

That experience running a TV show inspired Weiner’s 10th novel, “The Next Best Thing,” about Ruthie Saunders, a young woman who lost her parents in a car accident when she was just a toddler. She was severely injured in the accident, thrown through the windshield and suffering facial, arm and leg lacerations that required years of surgery.

Ruthie’s grandmother Rachel took care of her, and the scenes set in the hospital with Rachel caring and fiercely advocating for her granddaughter are truly moving. At one point, when Ruthie is a teenager, she writes in her diary that she “will never be beautiful” because of her scarring, and Rachel breaks down in tears when she reads it; it is a powerful moment in the book.

After graduating from college, Ruthie wants to move to Hollywood to become a television writer. Some of her fondest memories are of watching “The Golden Girls” with her grandmother, and she believes she can write something as good as that.

Rachel is excited to move to Hollywood with Ruthie, and off the two of them go together, a team as always. The relationship between Ruthie and Rachel is so beautifully written, and Weiner herself has spoken often about how close she is to her own nana, so it is clear that her reality has influenced this creation.

Rachel gets work as an extra on several TV shows and she takes to Hollywood like a duck to water. Ruthie gets a job as an assistant to the writers for a sitcom, and falls in love with one of the writers.

When that love affair has an abrupt end, Ruthie ends up helping high school seniors write their college essays and then helps people write their profiles for dating sites. As an interesting aside, Weiner expanded on this section of the book and made it into a short story titled “Swim” that she offered for free to people with e-readers. I found it to be an interesting way to encourage people to get a little something extra, and it enhanced my enjoyment of “The Next Best Thing.”

She ends up dating one of the men she helps to write a dating profile, and gets a job working for two great TV producers, who encourage her writing and help her end up with her own TV show, titled “The Next Best Thing.”

Ruthie is thrilled to have the opportunity, and while she is in limbo waiting to hear from the network whether or not they will buy her show, she says that if they will only give her a show, she would do anything they asked of her.

Those words come back to haunt her. The network buys her show, and right away she sees that things are going badly. The lead role is given to an actress whom the network wants, a young woman who decides to lose weight after the pilot episode is filmed.

Ruthie hoped that “the girl who won the role would be a girl like me, broken in some essential way, moving through a world that didn’t want her.” When her actress drastically alters her appearance, Ruthie is devastated. The entire premise of her show has changed.

The network puts more and more obstacles in her way, and Ruthie is forced to compromise her vision at every level. Weiner gives the reader a real inside look at how Hollywood works, using her own experiences. Anyone who enjoys television will find this utterly fascinating.

The main character is so well-written, you will root for Ruthie to win all the way through this terrific novel. Weiner uses Ruthie’s disfigurement as a metaphor for the many ways that girls and women feel unworthy and unlovable because they don’t fit society’s unrealistic standard of beauty. It’s a great message for all.

There are a few racy, R-rated scenes in this book that make it strictly for adults, but the book also has Weiner’s trademark humor. I loved Ruthie’s story, her relationship with her grandmother, and her big heart.

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