Ruth Saunders has spent most of her life hiding her partially disfigured face under hats. Thanks to her sense of humor and talented writing skills, she was able to avoid most of the emotional scars that go along with growing up. She decides to put this combination to good use and, along with her grandmother, treks cross country to L.A. to write a sitcom. What she doesn't expect is for her sitcom to be picked up by a network. Ecstatic over this opportunity, she isn't prepared for all the pitfalls and the heartache that goes along with producing a television program. Meanwhile, she's torturing herself over an unrequited crush and coping with the news of her grandmother's upcoming marriage. Will Ruth be able to find love and success in the land of dreams?
This past year, I had the pleasure of watching "Smash," a new TV show about the making of a Broadway musical. It was fun to see all the work that goes on behind the scenes. The music and dancing was an added bonus. I got that same feeling from reading "The Next Best Thing" and seeing what goes on behind the scenes of producing a TV show. All the while, I was being entertained by a sweet and charming story that reminds me why Jennifer Weiner is one of the best in the (writing) biz.
When I was in junior high, aside from "Sweet Valley High" and "The Babysitters Club," I would read these books by Candice Ransom. The titles each had an age in them (such as "Fourteen and Holding") and were a series about a girl dealing with making new friends, facing bullies and trying to find a boyfriend. These books were like comfort food to me during those awkward and sometimes torturous pre-teen years. Reading "The Next Best Thing" took me back to the feeling of reading those books. I found a character with whom I could truly identify and appreciate. Ruth was so genuine and down-to-earth, even with all the hardship in her life (losing her parents at a young age and having lots of surgeries that would never bring her face back to the way it was before the accident). I admired her chutzpah and her need to really make a name for herself. I like that Ms. Weiner created a character who doesn't look perfect. The story says a lot for body image and how people are expected to look in this day and age. While Ruth wasn't confident about her physical appearance, she didn't let it get in the way of chasing her dreams. She's an inspiration to any woman who has ever thought "I can't" or felt they had something holding them back from doing what they really wanted. So much to love about this story and I'm only halfway through the positive points.
*Commercial break time*
What's the next best thing to a perfect summer read? A summer reading with cupcakes! -- Check out Jen’s “Cupcakes Across America” book tour and see if she'll be in a town near you.
*Now back to the review--I didn't even give you the time and temp*
I first have to share how much I loved Ruth's grandma. She reminded me a lot of my late maternal grandma. She was so amazing with dropping everything to take care of Ruth after the accident and always making sure she felt comfortable and cherished. There's this one point when Ruth catches her crying and it just about breaks my heart. I love all her moxie and how she treats Ruth like the most important person in the world. She's so positive and encouraging. Plus, she has a great sense of humor! If critics are worried about Ms. Weiner's books not being Jewish enough, they just need to meet the classic Jewish grandma in this novel. I wouldn't mind having her cook Kosher chicken and matzo ball soup for my Shabbat dinners.
I liked that Ms. Weiner had first-hand experience as a television showrunner. It made the story that much more realistic and authentic. I never knew so much had to go into creating a television series, even just for the pilot episode. It made me think of all the shows I love both now and in the past and I started to wonder if they started out the way they ended up. I enjoyed the trivia tidbits about these shows. So fascinating!
As for the romantic scenes, I got a good sampling of what Ms. Weiner is capable of when I read "Fly Away Home," but the ones in "The Next Best Thing" were even better! I won't say who they're with or when they happen, but buckle your seatbelts...you're in for an incredible ride (excuse the pun)!
There's very little that bothered me about "The Next Best Thing." In all fairness, I do need to point out that jumping between the past and present got confusing at times. There was one point where Ruth was flashing back just to the previous night and it seemed to mesh with everything else going on, totally throwing me off when she was back to the present moment. It's pretty obvious when she goes back and forth in time, but there was a break in the fluidity of the story by taking it out of chronological order. Also, I felt like Ms. Weiner's own voice was speaking as Ruth, even though the story was fictional. Sometimes, I would forget I was reading Ruth's perspective and be picturing Ms. Weiner instead, speaking for her. Maybe she's just so close with her character that it was hard not to let her own voice slip into the story, but I could "hear" it in various things she said, especially when Ruth was extra bold about something.
I was once again swept away by Ms. Weiner's clever storytelling. I forgot I was reading an actual book as I became so absorbed in everything that was happening. I liked that she had only one character's perspective throughout the entire story this time. It just worked so well for everything that was happening. Her supporting characters were either lovable or despicable, depending on the situation and their role in Ruth's life. I had read the short story, "Swim," which inspired this novel, but couldn't remember it (as it was back in 2006). I re-read it while in the middle of "The Next Best Thing," and it helped give some background to parts in the story that was glossed over. Overall, I did not want to put this book down for even a moment, but I also wanted to savor it like a delicious slice of tiramisu that gets eaten up way too fast because it's just THAT good. I'm already eagerly anticipating Ms. Weiner's next book and this one hasn't officially even hit shelves yet!
Wow. This is kind of difficult because I don’t know where to start. First off, I’m sure you won’t be surprised when I say that I LOVED the book. The minute you start reading any of Jen’s books, the words just seem to suck you in.
It was definitely refreshing that Jen wrote the book in the first person. I tend to actually enjoy books more when written in the first person. It’s like you can almost see what’s inside of them and feel what they feel.
Even though I’m not an entertainment junkie per se, I do every now and then flip through People or US Weekly at the grocery check out line...or I just might “like” them on Facebook (don’t tell anyone). That being said, it was interesting to get a look into what happens in the lives of celebrities off camera and behind the scenes. It was fun reading the back and forth banter in the writers' room, which kind of reminded me of the scenes in 30 Rock that take place in that room.
I haven’t admired a heroine of a novel, as much as I admire Ruth, in a long time. It takes such an extreme level of courage and determination to persevere through so much adversity when one has had so many setbacks like Ruth during her childhood. I cannot imagine for the life of me having a huge scar taking up most of one side of my face. I remember not being able to look at myself in the mirror when I had chicken pox. There were marks all over my face. As I’m writing this now, I’m thinking people put so much energy and money into making themselves look better, all the while they should appreciate what they already have, when there are people out there who have it a lot worse.
The more I got to know Ruth’s grandmother, the more I fell in love with her. She has many of same qualities as both of my grandmothers did. Both of them made the best yummy Jewish foods, including matzo ball soup, noodle kugel, tzimmes, brisket, potato latkes and many more delectable dishes. She also reminds me of my mother too. Just like Ruth’s grandmother, my mother used to (and sometimes still does) takes care of me just a little too much. Sometimes I wanted to tell her “GIVE THE GIRL SOME SPACE.”
I’d like to leave you with one final thought. Ruth says on page 353 “…in this life you didn’t get perfect.” Life is not perfect and it will never be. The more you work on perfection, the deeper you will fall into misery. Sometimes you need to take a step back and look at what you have, and realize “my life might not be picture-perfect, but it’s the next best thing.”
"The Next Best Thing" is available for pre order on Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com. Thanks to Engelman and Co, we got our own review copies in exchange for our honest feedback.
You could also win a copy right here, as Engelman and Co is offering one book to a lucky US reader!
How to win "The Next Best Thing":
Since Ruth's inspiration comes from The Golden Girls, tell us which Golden Girl is your favorite or reminds you most of yourself. (One entry per person.) Please include your e-mail address or another way to contact you if you win.
US only. Giveaway ends July 8th at midnight EST.
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