A humorous take on hearth, home-and homicide

September 25, 2005|By Clare McHugh | Clare McHugh,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Review: Novel

GOODNIGHT NOBODY

Jennifer Weiner

Atria Books / 372 pages

PARENTS EVERYWHERE WILL RECOGNIZE the title of JenniferWeiner's fourth novel as a phrase from the perennially popular readaloud- at-bedtime children's classic, Goodnight Moon. And it signals Weiner's new focus: the struggles of the stayat- home mother who loves her children but feels like a nobody now that she's in exile from the professionalworld.

Weiner, possessing a warm heart and a wickedly funny eye for social interaction, has earned legions of fans with her previous books. And this latest offering will not disappoint. Having dissected dating mores (Good in Bed), revealed the lingering rivalries between adult siblings (In Her Shoes - soon to be a movie starring Cameron Diaz), and scrutinized the fears of firsttime mothers (Little Earthquakes), Weiner, with Goodnight Nobody, moves on to the seething resentments that emerge when highly competitive women sacrifice hefty salaries to devote their energies to parenting toddlers. Weiner's humor is broad and often bawdy - don't look here for nuanced portraits of women caught between duty and desire - but she uses her comedic skills to create an entertaining read about the 30-something mother Kate Klein.

Like all Weiner leading ladies, Kate is plump. And she worries a lot about how she is perceived by those around her. In Upchurch, the fancy Connecticut suburb where she lands after her husband decides Manhattan is no place to raise their three children, Kate feels constantly inadequate. She spends her days trying to keep her kids clean, her home tidy and her refrigerator stocked, but she comes up short on every task. When a friend comes over for a drink one evening, Kate realizes she's run out of orange juice although she could have sworn she had a full carton on hand that morning. She waits until her friend's back is turned and mixes her a vodka with orange-flavored Pedialyte - a strategy every harried mother can relate to, even if shewould never actually serve that concoction herself.

Upchurch mothers all seem to be perfectly groomed, politically correct, and totally in control of their lives, their kids, and their homes. Only when one of them is murdered - and Kate finds the body - can our heroine use her skills as a reporter (she previously worked at a celebrity tabloid) to show everyonewhat she's truly made of.

Of course, a compelling murder mystery usually requires a finely constructed plot, which Goodnight Nobody lacks. The unlikely stream of events in this book becomes a sort of clothesline on which Weiner pins various encounters between Kate and her best friend, her husband, her ex-boyfriend, her mother and her children. But so strong is Weiner's gift for dialogue and so sharp are her observations about how a certain kind of smart, sensitive but insecure woman experiences the world, she can get away with a jerry- built story.

The deficiencies in plot tip the reader off to Weiner's true purpose as a novelist. She writes to entertain, yes, but also to empathize and connect. She's betting that a lot of women are like her and her heroines: pounds heavier than the ideal portrayed by Hollywood, bruised by inattentive parents or partners, but determined to triumph and build satisfying lives.

Goodnight Nobody resembles a self-help tomemore than a thriller because the author uses Kate as a model of how to behave: Stick up for yourself, take risks, believe in your abilities, but don't hurt the ones you love. Hard to knock the message, even if the package it's delivered in doesn'tmeet the strictest standards for awork of fiction.

Clare McHugh is an editor at Time Inc.

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