Book Talk: *When It Happens to You*, by Molly Ringwald

cover of WHEN IT HAPPENS TO YOU by Molly Ringwald
When It Happens to You: A Novel in Stories
Molly Ringwald (Facebook) (Twitter)
It Books (August 2012), Hardcover (ISBN 0061809462 / 9780061809460)
Fiction, 256 pages
Source: Publisher
Reason for reading: Personal (with a strong nudge from Beth Kephart)

Opening lines (from the collection’s first story, “The Harvest Moon”):
“As far as Greta knew, there was nothing in the sky that night.
“Lying on her back in the bathroom on the cool of the white marble tiles, ,she heard the summons again. Her husband tapped the horn of the car; one long, noisy beep followed by two shorter taps, as if in apology. She strained to close the zipper on a pair of jeans without pinching the soft flesh of her midsection. It was a task she found both onerous and humiliating, particularly since she had purchased the pair less than a month ago, having gone through the same depressing experience with every other pair that lay folded in her dresser.”

Book description, from the publisher’s website:
When it happens to you, you will be surprised. That thing they say about how you knew all the time, but just weren’t facing it? That might be the case, but nevertheless, there you will be. 

Molly Ringwald mines the complexities of modern relationships in this gripping and nuanced collection of interlinked stories. 

Writing with a deep compassion for human imperfection, Ringwald follows a Los Angeles family and their friends and neighbors while they negotiate the hazardous terrain of everyday life—revealing the deceptions, heartbreak, and vulnerability familiar to us all.

Comments: I’m not a big fan of the short story, generally speaking. I’m inclined to blame it on my high-school literature classes, where they made up the bulk of what we studied, but it’s probably more because I prefer to spend more time with the characters and situations that I meet in fiction, and by definition, short stories don’t take much time. Even though it can be challenging to make time for reading anything some days, when I have that time, I usually prefer to invest it in a longer-lasting reading relationship with a novel. The increasingly popular “novel in stories” format is an excellent compromise for a reader like me. A collection as evocative and arresting as Molly Ringwald’s fiction debut, When It Happens to You, is no compromise at all.

(Yes, “that Molly Ringwald.” I’m on a bit of a Brat Pack binge this month.)

Although they have some surface resemblance, novels with several narrators differ from linked-story fiction. In my reading experience, a “novel in (x number of) voices” is more plot-driven, constructing its narrative from several viewpoints surrounding a common situation; a “novel in stories” seems to find its more connections through a common character or setting.

The eight stories in When It Happens to You are related enough to function as chapters in Ringwald’s overall narrative, but they shift perspectives, chronology, and style enough that each could be read independently. The common element is the characters Greta and Philip, whom we encounter at a time of marital crisis; at least one of them appears in every story, although they are primary characters in just about half of them. However, with each appearance, we learn something new about them and how they are being affected by their separation, sometimes seeing it through their effects on the relatives, friends, and neighbors who take the central roles in the other stories.

The other qualities that link Ringwald’s stories are their emotional honest, their vivid characterization…and just how well they’re written. I don’t think I was surprised by that, exactly, but I was impressed, and thoroughly drawn in.

Ringwald’s first book, the “illustrated self-help memoir” Getting the Pretty Back, was a surprising look at turning forty from a woman who, thanks to several iconic movies she made with writer/director John Hughes during the 1980’s, represented adolescence to millions. She’s obviously left her teens long behind, however; her fiction is the product of a mature, deeply thoughtful writer. When It Happens to You feels very accomplished for first fiction, and makes me curious to see what the future holds for Molly Ringwald, actor and author.

Rating: 4/5
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