Jennifer Weiner's fifth novel revisits her first. Good in Bed put Weiner on the map as a "chick-lit" superstar, but her books are something more than that, which is one of the reasons I really like her. Certain Girls picks up the story of Candace "Cannie" Shapiro and her daughter Joy, whose unexpected conception and premature birth were pivotal events in Good in Bed, twelve years later.
Twelve years later, Joy is on the cusp of her teens, preparing for her bat mitzvah, and deep in the throes of "I hate my mother." Cannie has been a devoted and attentive mother - and remains so, at just the time when her daughter wants her to start backing off. The popular crowd at school has suddenly started being attentive to Joy, and that makes her mother even more embarrassing...until (or because) Joy realizes that her mother is the reason for the attention. Cannie writes science fiction under a pseudonym now, but when Joy was a toddler, she published one book under her own name, a salacious semi-autobiographical novel called Big Girls Don't Cry. Joy didn't even know about the novel, but when she sneaks a copy and reads it, she recognizes enough about it that she feels that she's been deceived by her mother all her life, and that's just one more reason to be angry.
Cannie would prefer if Joy never read that novel, and it takes some time for her to realize that it's happened. She's always been very involved in Joy's life and protective of her, and now she's frustrated by her daughter's acting out and rebelliousness. At the same time, she's preoccupied by another unexpected family development. Her husband Peter, who isn't Joy's biological father but has always accepted her as his daughter, has decided that he wants to have a child with Cannie before they get too old (Cannie's already a few years over forty, and Peter is in his early fifties) - and that's one more thing Cannie is "protecting" Joy from knowing, at least for a while.
Weiner has chosen to use dual first-person narration, with alternating chapters told by Cannie and Joy, and I think it works really well. Each of the characters has a distinctive voice, and getting both of their perspectives on significant events in the story is enlightening; I thought that letting the reader see both sides was a particularly effective way of illustrating some of Cannie and Joy's frustrations and difficulties in communicating with each other. Having been a parent of teens (and not done yet), I could relate to both Cannie's blind spots about her daughter and Joy's self-centeredness - but by the end of the book, they've both made some progress.
I enjoyed Certain Girls, and Jennifer Weiner remains on my "author's I've got to read" list. She's a sharp and observant writer who creates characters that are smart, funny, flawed and human. Some parts of the story seemed a little far-fetched to me, but Weiner makes it all work, including the emotional connection. I enjoyed spending time with Cannie Shapiro again and getting to know Joy, and I think this book could generate some good discussion among, and between, mothers and teens.