I’m not a big fan of the short story, generally speaking. I’m inclined to blame it on my high-school literature classes, where they made up the bulk of what we studied, but it’s probably more because I prefer to spend more time with the characters and situations that I meet in fiction, and by definition, short stories don’t take much time. Even though it can be challenging to make time for reading anything some days, when I have that time, I usually prefer to invest it in a longer-lasting reading relationship with a novel. The increasingly popular “novel in stories” format is an excellent compromise for a reader like me. A collection as evocative and arresting as Molly Ringwald’s fiction debut, When It Happens to You, is no compromise at all.
Although they have some surface resemblance, novels with several narrators differ from linked-story fiction. In my reading experience, a “novel in (x number of) voices” is more plot-driven, constructing its narrative from several viewpoints surrounding a common situation; a “novel in stories” seems to find its more connections through a common character or setting.
The eight stories in When It Happens to You are related enough to function as chapters in Ringwald’s overall narrative, but they shift perspectives, chronology, and style enough that each could be read independently. The common element is the characters Greta and Philip, whom we encounter at a time of marital crisis; at least one of them appears in every story, although they are primary characters in just about half of them. However, with each appearance, we learn something new about them and how they are being affected by their separation, sometimes seeing it through their effects on the relatives, friends, and neighbors who take the central roles in the other stories.
The other qualities that link Ringwald’s stories are their emotional honest, their vivid characterization...and just how well they’re written. I don’t think I was surprised by that, exactly, but I was impressed, and thoroughly drawn in.
Ringwald’s first book, the "illustrated self-help memoir" Getting the Pretty Back, was a surprising look at turning forty from a woman who, thanks to several iconic movies she made with writer/director John Hughes during the 1980’s, represented adolescence to millions. She’s obviously left her teens long behind, however; her fiction is the product of a mature, deeply thoughtful writer. When It Happens to You feels very accomplished for first fiction, and makes me curious to see what the future holds for Molly Ringwald, actor and author.