Next Best Thing (Weiner)

The Next Best Thing
Jennifer Weiner, 2012
Simon & Schuster
400 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781451617757

Actors aren’t the only ones trying to make it in Hollywood.…At twenty-three, Ruth Saunders left her childhood home in Massachusetts and headed west with her seventy-year-old grandma in tow, hoping to make it as a screenwriter.

Six years later, she hits the jackpot when she gets The Call: the sitcom she wrote, The Next Best Thing, has gotten the green light, and Ruthie’s going to be the showrunner. But her dreams of Hollywood happiness are threatened by demanding actors, number-crunching executives, an unrequited crush on her boss, and her grandmother’s impending nuptials.

Set against the fascinating backdrop of Los Angeles show business culture, with an insider’s ear for writer’s room showdowns and an eye for bad backstage behavior and set politics, Jennifer Weiner’s new novel is a rollicking ride on the Hollywood roller coaster, a heartfelt story about what it’s like for a young woman to love, and lose, in the land where dreams come true. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—March 28, 1970
Where—De Ridder, Louisiana, USA
Education—B.A., Princeton University
Currently—lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Jennifer Weiner wrote her first novel, Good in Bed, from real-life heartbreak, and it rings true as a result. The main character, Cannie Shapiro, puts a long-term boyfriend on hold; when he writes a column about "Loving a Larger Woman," she spins into a depression, questioning her breakup as her ex moves on.

Cannie has several similarities with Weiner: Both are Philadelphia journalists who went to Princeton, and both have struggled with being larger women. They've also both been hit hard by their parents divorcing; and like Cannie, Weiner has a mother who has come out of the closet. Weiner jokes on her website that after college, she was "qualified to do nothing but write self-conscious short stories about [my] parents' divorce." As with many writers, trauma has become a mixed blessing for Weiner; who writes candidly and potently about the pain of being from a "broken home."

Weiner's books are immediately comfortable, with smart, movie-worthy dialogue and characters that are almost always engaging, if not likable. It would be (and has been) easy to categorize her work as "chick lit," and she might not even argue with that; but to do so is a bit facile. It undercuts the effortless intelligence that Weiner injects into her writing, her characters dropping references to Steinbeck and Andrea Dworkin as they apply MAC lip gloss.

Since her 2001 debut, Weiner's fictional themes have matured, as well. Although she mostly ties up her stories with satisfying neatness, she never shies away from the messiness of life. Her work resonates with real issues faced by countless women: the complexities of family relationships, the challenges of motherhood, and the exasperating, seemingly unsolvable mystery of men.

Weiner delivers terrific recreational reading, but imbues her characters with a wit and complexity that goes beyond beach-reads. It's fitting that she has called journalism "just about the perfect career for aspiring young writers." She has developed her skills as a journalist and columnist, and focused them on creating characters who could be you, or your friend.

From a 2004 Barnes & Noble interview:

• Weiner's first job was a stint as the education reporter at the Centre Daily Times in State College, Pennsylvania.

• Her real-life dog, Wendell, appears frequently in her writing. In Good in Bed, he insisted on a pseudonym, "Nifkin."

In her words:

• In my dreams, I am a backup singer. Not a lead singer, because I don't dream that big (at least, not vocally), but a backup singer.

• I have a nanny. I say this first because I recently made the mistake of posting on someone else's web site using the phrase "as a working mother." I was promptly flamed for aligning myself with my embattled sisters in the trenches when I'm fortunate enough have a nanny who takes care of my fifteen-month-old daughter in the afternoons, and that's how I get my work done. So there. Nanny! And my husband and I will also occasionally hire a babysitter and go out Saturday night. I realize I'm torpedoing my shot at mother of the year with this, but what the hey.

• Reading is my number-one hobby. I also love walking with my daughter, either in her backpack or stroller. My husband is a wonderful cook, and I am a pretty passable sous-chef.

• When asked what book that most influenced her career as a writer, here is what she answered:

It's probably a tie between Nora Ephron's Crazy Salad and Fran Lebowitz's Metropolitan Life. Both of those books had such a great voice, such a smart, funny take on the world, and I thought that if I could grow up and sound like those women, whether or not I ever published anything, at least I'd keep myself amused and happy. (Author bio and interview from Barnes & Noble.)

Book Reviews
Jennifer Weiner is a dynamo of a writer: witty and engaging with a series of best-selling novels.... But The Next Best Thing isn't on a par with Good in Bed or In Her Shoes.... Certainly, the TV business is overripe for ridicule, and Weiner leaves no Hollywood cliche unturned: the self-absorbed, empty-headed actress; the crass producer who makes casting decisions based on whether he would sleep with the actress...; the network executives who alter plots and themes on a whim. The book's nicest surprise is a lovely leading man for Ruth who is a handsome producer with a gentle wit, thinning hair and a house out of Architectural Digest—and who also happens to use a wheelchair.
USA Today

Weiner is coming off a year in Hollywood, and she puts the experience to excellent use in this utterly engaging story of a showrunner who, after six years of slogging, finally gets a series on the air, only to discover that her troubles are only beginning—meddling studio execs, egomaniacal actors and one crushable but unobtainable boss.

Ruth [Saunders] gets the coveted green light for her show, but things go downhill from there.... Ruth's vision ends up getting a little watered down in the execution.... Weiner writes bitingly about the experience of women in Hollywood writers' rooms.
NPR Saturday Edition

Full of warm and interesting characters as well as a wealth of insider industry detail (Weiner was a cocreator of an ABC family sitcom), this is a must-read for Weiner’s many fans and anyone who enjoys smart, funny fiction.
Library Journal

A sitcom showrunner finds the road to her first series launch much rockier than expected. When Ruth Saunders gets "the call" from the network telling her that her original series, The Next Best Thing, is a go, at first she is incredulous....The plot, exposition and flashback, heavy at first, pick up speed as complications multiply. Spares no bon mot in exposing Hollywood's sexism, ageism and incurable penchant for extravagant silliness
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. What is the significance of swimming in The Next Best Thing? Why do you think it is such a cathartic activity for Ruth?

2. How does Ruth use humor to her advantage? What purpose does it serve her? What did you think about her involvement with Hellsmouth?

3. Throughout the novel, Ruth finds herself in situations where either she is disappointed by people involved in The Next Best Thing, or she knows she will be disappointing others. How does she handle these moments, and should she have handled any of them differently? What does Ruth mean when she says, “I could do it all as long as I felt like my toughness was in the service of something important; that I was protecting the essential heart of my story” (290)?

4. How does the novel depict male-female dynamics in Hollywood? For those people in positions of power, is their gender shown to be part of their success? Do you think that the outcome of The Next Best Thing would have been any different if the show had had a male show-runner, rather than a female?

5. Consider the various interiors described within the novel—Ruth and Grandma’s home in Framingham, the Two Daves’s offices, Little Dave’s home. What does each physical space convey about the individuals who inhabit it?

6. Why is television so sacred to Ruth? How do her beliefs about the power of television impact how she responds to the production process of The Next Best Thing?

7. After announcing that she and Maurice are engaged, Grandma says to Ruth, “I didn’t want to be alone, so I didn’t let you go when I should have...I should have pushed you out of the nest when it was time for you to go” (163). Do you agree with Grandma’s assessment, or do you think their living arrangements were more mutually beneficial? How does her relationship with Ruth evolve over the course of the novel?

8. Both Little Dave and Ruth have physical scars which are visibly apparent, but to what extent are they internally scarred as well? How do the ways in which they’ve been wounded shape their perspectives on the world—and how they view each other?

9. Turn to p. 299 and re-read Ruth’s description of the three major themes in literature. Which would you apply to The Next Best Thing? Is the novel more about man versus man—or man versus himself?

10. Why do you think Ruth is devastated by Cady Stratton’s weight loss? When Dave tries to console Ruth, saying, “There are pretty girls who can’t get out of their own way,” Ruth responds: “But nobody identifies with them.” With whom do you agree, and why?

11. How are traditional notions of beauty and sexuality challenged in the novel? Which couples get “happy endings” and what does that happiness look like?

12. Discuss what the words “compromise,” “collaboration,” and “concession” mean to you. Are they simply variations on the same concept, or do you think there are distinct differences between these terms? As a group, can you agree upon an example of each in the novel?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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