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In Jennifer Weiner's latest, having everything isn't enough

Reading one of Jennifer Weiner's contemporary novels of manners is a bit like biting into an apple. The experience is full of flavor, more crisp than juicy, and refreshingly tart.

Partly, that's because the novels typically are narrated by a heroine who, like Weiner herself, is an acute and witty observer of social norms into which she doesn't quite fit.

Weiner's 10th novel, "All Fall Down," features Allison Weiss, who has everything she once wanted — a husband and daughter she loves, an interesting job, a stately house in the suburbs — but finds herself sliding into an addiction to prescription pain medication.

Much of the novel's pleasure is provided by the pinpoint accuracy with which Allison nails pretensions, such as the upscale new mothers the novel describes, who wear "their babies wrapped in yards of organic cotton hand-dyed and woven by indigenous Peruvian craftswomen who were paid a living wage."

Weiner's books have become best-sellers partly because of such observations, which are made by Rubenesque protagonists who learn to overcome their insecurities. There are more than 11 million copies of her books in print in 36 countries, according to her publicist.

Weiner, 44, a Philadelphia resident and the mother of 11- and 6-year-old daughters, seems to enjoy making a big splash while rowing upstream. That's true whether she's railing against sexism in the publishing world, engaging in a literary feud with the novelist Jonathan Franzen or tweeting episodes of "The Bachelor" live to her nearly 89,000 followers.

"Tweeting 'The Bachelor' became a communal experience for me," Weiner said over the phone a few weeks before coming to the Enoch Pratt Free Library. "I love that people come to my books that way. They're like, 'Ohmigod, you write novels? I thought you were just the funny tweeting lady.'"

An edited transcription of the conversation appears below.

Was "All Fall Down" inspired by being the child of an alcoholic who also was a drug addict? Were you afraid that you were going to turn out like your father?

Absolutely. The children of addicts are eight times as likely as other people to have problems themselves. The good news is that alcohol never did anything other than make me sleepy or hungry, which is my natural state.

But yeah, any child of an addict looks at the statistics with alarm and is careful about her own choices.

In my case, it sort of freaked me out about my own kids. They're young now, but when it becomes time to have the talk, I'm going to have to say:

"You guys are biologically predisposed to this becoming a problem. I'm not going to tell you to never have a beer, because that's not realistic. But I am going to tell you there are more risks to drinking than there are for other kids."

You're a natural satirist, though there was one time when I sensed you holding back. What do you really think of 12-step groups?

Hee hee hee hee hee. Laura Miller in Salon did a close reading of some of my books and decided that my protagonists are horrible snobs and that they look down on people — to which I say, "Yeah, kind of." I don't know if I'd call it snobbery or opinions.

Allison has, and with good reason, a pretty low opinion of the one-size-fits-all nature of recovery and some of the sloganeering that goes on, like "You're only as sick as your secrets." Really? Really?

But nobody wants to slam 12-step groups. They've done a ton of good. They've saved people's lives. Allison keeps wanting to say that she isn't like these people. She keeps wanting to say, "This isn't me." At the end of the book, she has to say, "This is me."

Let's talk about your literary feud with Jonathan Franzen, which makes me feel kind of like the child of divorcing parents. Why can't I enjoy reading you both for different reasons?

You can. I think there's a place on the shelf for everyone's books. Jonathan Franzen, I think, would be the one to dispute that. He's the one who would say, "This is trash. It's not worth anyone's time."

I read Jonathan Franzen. I admire the craft, 100 percent. He's a wonderful, observant, sharp writer. The one beef I have with him is when he talked in an article for The Guardian about "Jennifer Weiner-ish self-promotion."

I was like, "Dude, if I got anything close to the rollout you get every time you publish anything, I would not have to work so hard. I wouldn't have to be on Facebook or Twitter or making my own little funny ads."

He's been in this privileged position his whole career. He doesn't have to be on Twitter — The New York Times is his Twitter.

Maybe part of the problem isn't that you're a woman or that you're commercially successful, but that you write novels of manners. Writers who focus on surface appearances often get dismissed — unfairly, I think — as lightweights.

That's an interesting question. Critics sort of slam my characters for what they see as materialism. They think that either my characters or that I as a writer am too concerned with stuff.

But I think that there's a specificity that comes with describing a McMansion or a kind of shoe or purse or car. You're locating a character in her world and telling readers through a form of code and shorthand who she is and what she's all about.

You raised the issue of gender parity in the publishing world in 2010. Has much changed, for better or for worse, in the past four years?

On the one hand, the numbers still suck at lots of places. But what's good is that we know what the numbers are. After "Freedom" came out in 2010 and The New York Times transformed itself into Jonathan Franzen's personal PR agency, Jodi Picoult and I started asking: What's going on here? Obviously, this is a major writer and attention must be paid, but this much attention, and to the exclusion of whom?

As a result, people started counting. They started asking, "Is it true that men get more attention and reviews, and that there are genres of books that get completely ignored?" And the answer is yes. The numbers were terrible. The numbers were appalling.

It was also frustrating to see how little the books that were being reviewed correlated with the books that were being read. The paper of record lavishes attention on books that maybe 5,000 or 10,000 people are ever going to read.

Even though the numbers haven't gotten better everywhere, they have gotten better in some places. Everybody knows that people are watching. Everybody knows that at the end of the year, somebody is going to count how many stories published by The New Yorker and how many books reviewed by The New York Times Book Review were written by women.

So I think that we are in a better place.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

About the book

"All Fall Down" will be published Tuesday by Atria Books. 384 pages, $26.99

Jennifer Weiner will discuss her new novel at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Enoch Pratt Central Library, 400 Cathedral St. Reserved seats cost $25; free seating also will be available on a first-come, first-served basis at 6:30 p.m. the day of the event. Information: 410-396-5494 or prattlibrary.org/writerslive.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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