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Review of ‘The Next Best Thing’ by Jennifer Weiner

August 27, 2012 1 comment

The Next Best Thing

by Jennifer Weiner

Published by Simon & Schuster, 2012, RRP $37, ISBN 9780857208163

The review copy was provided by Booksellers NZ and is posted on their blog here.

The Next Best Thing by best-selling author Jennifer Weiner is set in Los Angeles and is about Ruth Saunders, a young woman who breaks into the world of TV sitcoms with her show The Next Best Thing. I’m interested in LA and screenwriting, and I think they’re great subjects for a novel, so I was looking forward to reading and reviewing this book. But it didn’t go quite the way I’d expected.

Fifty pages in I knew there was something not quite right about this novel, and so I did a little investigating. I wouldn’t normally search the internet or look at other reviews before I write my own, but on this occasion I’m glad I did.

It turns out that Jennifer Weiner co-created and wrote the short-lived sitcom State of Georgia in 2011. To be fair she acknowledges this at the back of The Next Best Thing. But there’s a reminder that should be pinned to every writer’s wall: just because it happened in real life doesn’t mean it should be in your story. When I found out about Weiner’s cancelled sitcom, and had a look around, all the problems I had with The Next Best Thing started to make sense.

As the story slowly unfolds, we see Ruth’s ideas being taken away from her, changed piece by piece until her show is no longer the one she dreamed up. If only, I realised Weiner is telling us, if only I – sorry, I mean Ruth – could have made ‘State of Georgia’ – sorry, I mean The Next Best Thing – the way I’d wanted to it would have all been OK, and it would have been a hit.

Weiner tells us in great detail how it all happened. Dozens of pages go by while we hear about how the show was picked up, the rewriting of scenes and introduction of new characters, the studio executives getting their way with casting, and the lowly status of the writer when it comes to decisions. And what happened with audience testing. And how difficult the actors were. And so on and so on.

There’s no problem with writers basing parts of their stories on reality. Everyone does it. But Weiner’s inability to resist including endless scenes just because they happened in real life weighs the book down heavily.

Weiner doesn’t help herself by choosing to write in the first person. Everything is related to the reader by Ruth at a slow, unvarying pace. I turned the pages quickly, but not because I wanted to find out what happens. I just wanted to get it over with. There is a remarkable lack of dramatic tension. Although Weiner tries to get us engaged with her characters, there’s no depth, no emotion. There’s nothing really at stake. There should be – all the ingredients are present – but somehow it fails to ignite.

Mark Twain said he didn’t have time to write a short letter, so he wrote a long one instead. I’m quite sure Weiner didn’t give herself enough time to write The Next Best Thing. She couldn’t wait to tell the world what she thought about her ‘State of Georgia’ experience. ‘State of Georgia’ was cancelled in September 2011 and The Next Best Thing hit the bookstands on 1 August 2012. Hardly enough time to write it, let alone tighten it up. Definitely not enough time to pick up what would be called, in TV or the movies, glaring continuity errors. Not enough time to pick up the typos. Not enough time to do a quick web search to confirm that if you wanted a ‘Maori tribesman’ to give you a tattoo, you probably wouldn’t go to Australia.

And then, the ending. It’s not as if any more evidence was needed to to prove that this book was produced too quickly, but the ending provided it anyway. In contrast to the slow-moving first 350 pages, the ending is hurried, muddled and indulgent. There are premiere parties and pilot re-shoots, actors on the payroll and holidays being taken, people appearing in a scene to say one thing and then disappearing again. All very confusing. And then – well, I won’t spoil it for you.

Suffice to say some of it is based on real life events and some of it is made up. Just like all fiction, really, and that’s the thing. Transforming life into fiction is what writers do but it takes time, and I don’t think Weiner spent enough time on The Next Best Thing.

I was disappointed by Weiner’s effort. She’s a best selling author, and The Next Best Thing should have been a better, and shorter, book. I’m quite sure there’s an interesting, exciting and emotionally compelling novel hiding inside The Next Best Thing. I just wish Weiner had taken the time to write it.

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