Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Fallback Plan, by Leigh Stein

The cover design of The Fallback Plan looks like a comic book, the blurbs on the cover stress the book's humor, and the first chapter opens with a very funny riff: "In June, the monsoons hit Bangladesh, Chinese police discovered slaves in a brickwork factory who couldn't be sent home because they were too traumatized to remember anything but their own names, and Dr. Kevorkian was released from prison. In other news, I moved in with my parents." And narrator Esther, a recent college graduate, does bring wry humor to the story...but that story is in fact a sad one.

Esther had a breakdown during her senior year while preparing for her first starring role in a college production (Blanche in Streetcar). Having graduated with a degree in theater, she has no prospects and is spending her time with a couple of ne'er-do-wells who spend their time drinking, playing video games, and smoking pot; Esther has a crush on one of these losers, Jack, despite the fact that he refers to her as "the Jewess."

Her mother then arranges a job for her babysitting the four-year-old daughter of Amy and Nate, a couple whose infant daughter died a few months earlier. Esther becomes fond of May and regales her with stories about pandas, surreal tales she envisions becoming a screen play. Esther also snoops around the house, developing something of a crush on Nate, although she rarely sees him for more than a few minutes. Amy, meanwhile, is clearly struggling in the aftermath of her baby's death, spending all day every day in the attic, working on her art, which proves to be a bizarre reproduction of the baby's room.

When Amy takes May and decamps to Arizona, Esther is once again left with nothing to do. Yet, in the final chapter, Stein seems to be suggesting that Esther is now ready for her "next steady step." For me, this did not ring true--of course, I may be too old for coming-of-age novels. I found myself identifying more with Esther's mother than with the heroine herself.

Favorite passage:
I've heard that only children remember less than children with siblings do, because we have no one with whom to corroborate our memories. I've had to appropriate my parents' memories of my childhood, their stories, true or not, because sometimes when I see old photos of myself I don't quite believe that's who I was. What appear to be the happiest years of my life in photo albums are the years most missing in my memory.

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