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Fractious, Funny Lives of Mothers and 'Girls'

'Certain Girls'
In <em>Certain Girls,</em> Jennifer Weiner returns to her <em>Good in Bed</em> character, Cannie Shapiro.
In Certain Girls, Jennifer Weiner returns to her Good in Bed character, Cannie Shapiro.

Jennifer Weiner's 2001 debut smash, Good In Bed — which is the kind of book you buy for a plane ride, then are surprisingly pleased you did — introduced us to the agreeably mordant Cannie Shapiro, who, overweight, scorned, and inadvertently on the way to motherhood, writes her way out of a hole and into a career and marriage with a naughty best-seller. (Yes, it's meta.) Since then, Weiner has obliged with numerous other best-sellers, but none with so uncompromising and unsettling a character.

Now, in Certain Girls, Weiner returns to her first creation. Cannie is an interesting confection — droll, supersmart, self-hating and almost incapable of getting out of her own way, not that she tries very often. Despite a loving husband and poised teenage daughter, the 40-something is still hauling around the anxiety and anger of her earlier incarnation. Weiner's narrative unfolds in chapters that alternate the point of view of Cannie, who has swapped her status as steamy author for the role of prototypical Jewish mama, and her daughter, Joy, who is mortified by mama's stifling.

Joy finds a copy of Cannie's profane first novel and realizes the mortification has only begun. As Joy studies to become a bat mitzvah, she studies her mother's past, too, and finds much anew to hate, while Cannie (whose husband is pushing for a second child) is nearly undone by her and her daughter's newly fractious relations. Having painstakingly built her life around Joy, Cannie watches her tear it up from the bedrock.

Weiner, whose other forays include the critically underrated (on both page and screen) In Her Shoes, has spoken often about the trials of the chick-lit ghetto. Chief among them must be that a character as complex as Cannie disappears behind a hail of marketer-friendly blurbs like "wickedly funny" and "feisty," with little acknowledgment that darker forces are at work. It's telling that Cannie, the writer, hides her face from the critical public. The market is still no place for a girl who is equal parts zaftig and Zola.

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Lizzie Skurnick
Lizzie Skurnick's reviews and essays have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and "many other appallingly underpaying publications," she says. Her books blog, Old Hag, is a Forbes Best of the Web pick and has been anthologized in Vintage's Ultimate Blogs: Masterworks from the Wild Web. She writes a column on vintage young-adult fiction for, a job she has been preparing for her entire life. She is on the board of the National Book Critics Circle.