The Next Best Thing by Jennifer Weiner

coverPlot (from simonandschuster.com)

Actors aren’t the only ones trying to make it in Hollywood.…At twenty-three, Ruth Saunders left her childhood home in Massachusetts and headed west with her seventy-year-old grandma in tow, hoping to make it as a screenwriter. Six years later, she hits the jackpot when she gets The Call: the sitcom she wrote, The Next Best Thing, has gotten the green light, and Ruthie’s going to be the showrunner. But her dreams of Hollywood happiness are threatened by demanding actors, number-crunching executives, an unrequited crush on her boss, and her grandmother’s impending nuptials.
Set against the fascinating backdrop of Los Angeles show business culture, with an insider’s ear for writer’s room showdowns and an eye for bad backstage behavior and set politics, Jennifer Weiner’s new novel is a rollicking ride on the Hollywood roller coaster, a heartfelt story about what it’s like for a young woman to love, and lose, in the land where dreams come true.

Buy at: Amazon | B&N | Powell’s

Things I Loved

The free short story about Ruth when she first moves to LA, “Swim,” was so compelling that I immediately bought the $13 e-book at full price. And, um, I may have been waiting outside the doors when the library book sale opened last weekend because I had it on good authority that I could get a used hardcover copy for $1. That’s how much I liked this book.

Swimming!

Ruth uses swimming as a coping mechanism for dealing with her feelings of loneliness and inadequacy. (She was disfigured in the same car accident that killed her parents when she was a toddler and had several painful and alienating reconstructive surgeries as a child.) There’s just something about being in the water that makes the world feel right again, even and especially if it feels like your life is falling apart. Swimming got me through a really rough patch in undergrad but I gave it up after developing RSI. Reading TNBT made me want to start swimming again. And not just in a hypothetical way. I bought $40 goggles and drive 45 minutes round trip 3-4 times a week so I can swim at the nearest public pool.

Ruth & Dave

I wanted this whole book to just be a romance novel about Ruth and Dave (Dave is also Ruth’s boss, who co-produces one of TV’s most popular sitcoms and is fabulously wealthy). Ruth is so wrapped up in her own self-loathing that she doesn’t even notice that Dave is into her (like when she gives him a copy of Body for Christmas and they share a MOMENT after he reads it, which the reader totally picks up on even though Ruth doesn’t have a clue) or when she’s breaking his heart (like when she gets weird after they fool around in the pool and it doesn’t even occur to her that Dave might interpret her freakout as rejection). And Dave has no idea how insecure Ruth is; I don’t think it even occurs to him that she considers herself unworthy of him.

Disability Sexytimes!

I lovelovelove that Dave’s disability isn’t a Thing. Ruth never thinks “oh, I can’t be with him because he uses a wheelchair.” She’s too busy thinking, “oh, I can’t be with him because I have a gnarly scar on my face.” She likes his laugh and his sense of humor and the way he smells. He is totally gorgeous and she wants him. She acknowledges his disability but doesn’t see it as a barrier. And then they have actual sexytimes. It’s so depressingly rare to see people with disabilities portrayed as, you know, people who can and do have sex and are sexy to others.

Also, Ruth’s collection of fedoras and Dave’s dog, Pocket.

Qualms

Hollywood Pilot Plot

Even though Weiner’s experience co-creating and producing her own sitcom inspired the story and was a huge part of TNBT’s marketing campaign, I did not care about the Hollywood pilot plot at all. It’s sort of like eating hummus. It doesn’t matter whether you’re eating it with pita chips or pretzels or dried out carrot sticks; those are just the vehicle for the hummus-y goodness. Once the hummus is gone, they go back in the fridge while you lick the plastic container clean. In this case, the Hollywood pilot plot is the dipping medium and Ruth & Dave are the hummus. Only instead of licking the container, I accidentally woke up at 6 the next morning to re-read all of the Ruth & Dave bits on my Kindle before work.

Disability Politics?

Interestingly, Goodreads reviewers seemed to be most interested in the Hollywood pilot plot, which they found underwhelming, and were appalled by the graphic sex scenes. (Which were not, by my standards, particularly graphic. Although I’m not in total disagreement about the Hollywood pilot plot.) None of the 20 or so reviews I read mentioned disability sexytimes one way or the other. Portrayals of disability are one of the things I tend to read carefully for, but I’m by no means an expert on disability politics so I like to read other people’s reviews to help me think through my own interpretation of the text. I almost feel like there’s something I’m missing here, but I don’t know what it is.

Insecurity

Other people also appeared to find Ruth’s insecurity obnoxious. As a chronically insecure person myself, I actually found it incredibly relatable. Also, TNBT is written in first person, and chronic insecurity generally works pretty well in that POV.

Reads Like

A really meta TV drama (or movie) about making a sitcom based on a contemporary romance novel.

Possibly the kind of TV drama that airs on Showtime (or is produced by an indie film studio). I would totally watch it all the time. Especially if they cast actual actors with disabilities/disfigurements in the main roles.

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