Tuesday, February 21, 2012

book review: Fall Back Plan by Leigh Stein

The basics: Esther, a recent Northwestern theater graduate, is jobless and carless, so she moves back in with her parents in the Chicago suburbs. (I adored this description of the suburbs: "The stillness of the humid night was punctuated only by the sounds of car engines cooling in the parking lot, and the sprinklers on the lawns of the surrounding houses along the streets named after trees that do not grow there.")

My thoughts: When I first heard about this novel, it was billed as a "quarter-life crisis novel." While I understand where that moniker comes from, I don't think it suits this novel. There were a few passages, however, that do make a case for Leigh Stein as the voice of those in their early-to-mid-twenties: "I wanted whatever was going to happen to have happened already, so I could email my friends and tell them about it."

Esther is a delightful, quirky, smart, and sad young woman. Her vision of life after college has not materialized:
"Before college, when I’d imagined my social future, my life at twenty-two, I’d pictured a small group of brunette women who were all my best friends, and our bearded boyfriends who all hailed from Portland, in a room together, drinking red wine and discussing Brecht’s influence on Godard, or the merits of Joyce. What page are you on in Ulysses? Oh, 500 and something. Keep with it. I can’t wait to hear what you think of the Latin parodies in Episode 14! Anyone up for another game of Bananagrams?"
The beauty, honesty and pain of this novel are exemplified by how that paragraph continues:
"But after four years of college, I was exhausted by ideas, and secretly relieved to live at home because there were so few expectations. I liked being with Jack and Pickle because everything we did together, everything we ever talked about, was unambiguous and fell into one of four categories: Sex, money, drugs, violence."
Esther finds herself hanging out with Jack and Pickle, two friends from high school who dabble in community college, video games and partying. Her parents find her a job baby-sitting for friends of theirs who recently lost a baby. The characters of Amy, the troubled mother, and May, the four-year old she spends her days with. The mix of these worlds is particularly stunning. Throughout this novel, there is a beautiful tension between humor and the darkness of reality:
"I couldn’t believe I now had a job. My job was going to be playing with a four-year-old? Part of my brain immediately attempted to calculate the amount of money I’d get to spend on screenwriting books after I paid my parents rent, part of my brain said, You’re stoned, about to go on a drug run, and someone is going to trust you with their small child, and part of my brain cast me as Mary Poppins in an adaptation directed by Stanley Kubrick."
While I utterly enjoyed this novel and was sad when I finished it, I think if I had read it even a few years ago, I would have shouted-from-the-rooftops-loved-it. It has little to do with my age and more to do with where I am in life. I'm mostly settled into a nice urban apartment with my husband. We just bought a new car. I have a tenure-track job at an awesome university. This blog serves as a voice to my small corner of the literary blogosphere. Still, the frantic, "who am I?", "where am I going?"--literally and figuratively--questions are not that far behind me. Even if they were, Stein drew me into Esther's world, and it's a quirkier, funnier version of reality; thankfully it still has the hallmarks of everyday life as its anchor.

Favorite passage: "Apparently, no one ever grew up to be noble and brave and wise. Apparently, this was just a lie perpetuated by children’s book authors. Thanks, Frances Hodgson Burnett! High five, Louisa May Alcott! Now, at twenty-two, I finally knew the truth: In another twenty years I would still be depressed and apathetic. I would still be waiting for that turning point, the one that comes in books and plays, where the hero has to step up and risk it all. Apparently, in life, there is no such thing. In another twenty years I would just be a heavier, more nearsighted, more clumsy version of the girl I was now, except that I wouldn’t even be allowed to read Teen Vogue, because I would be seen as either mentally ill or as a pedophilic lesbian."

The verdict: The Fallback Plan is a delightful novel filled with humor, wisdom, heart and pain. Leigh Stein is a talented writer I'll be keeping an eye on.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 224 pages
Publication date: January 3, 2012
Source: I bought it for my Kindle

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Fallback Plan from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

Want more Leigh Stein? Full Stop has an AWESOME interview with her this week. Leigh also has a blog. Plus you can find her on Twitter and Facebook.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

10 comments:

  1. Though I am not at the point in my life where I am casting about deciding who I want to be, I think this book would be interesting for the perspective it provides on a character who is going through that phase. I loved the quotes that you provided, and think that this sounds like a read that might make look back with a little bit of fondness on the days past. Great review today. It was really tight and thoughtful.

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    1. Thanks! This book is pretty special, and I hoped to do it justice (especially because I think the cover does not!)

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  2. I could see this one being a movie.

    I can totally relate to this book, from what you've shared here. I am not actively doing the "who am I" dance but I am constantly feeling that there is something more that I should be doing. Yes, I have a job, a family, a house and for the most part, a pretty good life but since the age of 5 I've felt as if there was a bigger purpose to my life and I ponder that daily.

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    1. Ti - I think this novel would make a hilarious film! On a more serious note, I've felt that way frequently over the years. I hope you find your peace with whatever it is!

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  3. I thought about writing a book about a quarter-life crisis, LOL... just never got around to it, hehe. ;) Sounds like a good read. I'd probably relate in some ways but mostly not. I never went through some of that because I was super independent from the time I graduated high school and I NEVER considered it an option to move back home or anything like that. Now the finding myself part of I could relate to, but I feel much more grown up now than that stage of life too.

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    1. You still can! I think to some extent we're always finding ourselves as long as live, learn and strive for things.

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  4. This sounds pretty adorable! I might have to give it a try and see if I like it!

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    1. Amused--I hope you do. I'd love to hear your thoughts!

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  5. Oh yeah, I think this is going to be up my alley as well. Those questions are largely behind me as well, but with the looming job change, I get hints of them sneaking back into my head. Great review, Carrie, and I loved the passages you shared.

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    1. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this one, Andi. Perhaps it will make next year's Tournament of Books?!

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Thank you for taking the time to comment. Happy reading!