What is women’s fiction? Generally and broadly defined as a novel featuring a female protagonist in which her relationships are more important than specific goals and outcomes, these books are usually written by women (I think Nicholas Sparks’ books are considered romance rather than women’s fiction) and often lumped in with chick lit and romance. Lately, a lot of women’s fiction novels have featured working women whose lives have hit a road bump, causing them to take a second look at their jobs, husbands, child care situations and other family issues to try to achieve balance once again.
So can a book be considered women’s fiction if the character doing this is a man?
According to Amazon, no. The book-retailing behemoth has categorized Cristina Alger’s This Was Not the Plan as general literature in the humorous/family life genre. But for me, the novel – published in hardcover in February and now out in paperback – is clearly women’s fiction. If for no other reason, because I doubt most men would be as interested in its subject matter as women would be.
Lawyer Charlie Goldwyn was widowed last year at thirty-three, when his wife Mira died in a plane crash. Father to five-year-old Caleb, he’s avoided spending any real time with the boy due to the lucky coincidence of twin sister Zadie, who has no job and no life and has lived in his New York apartment since before the plane crash. Being up for partner means Charlie routinely leaves for work before dawn and comes home after Caleb goes to bed. To settle an important case, Charlie spends three days at the office, then skips an important dinner for Caleb to attend a mandatory party. Exhausted and drunk, he makes an unfortunate “Jerry Maguire” type speech that ends up on YouTube. Instead of making partner, Charlie is shown the door.
At the same time, Zadie has a boyfriend who wants to spend time with her, and Zadie thinks Charlie should use his unemployment to get to know Caleb, an anxious boy who dresses like a girl and frets over natural disasters. Charlie barely knows the boy, is still grieving Mira, and is more concerned about his next job than getting to know his son.
My biggest question in picking up this book was not whether Charlie and Caleb would bond, or if Charlie would find a suitable replacement for Mira, but whether Alger would write believably in first person as a man. For the most part, I think she does. There were some instances, especially in the beginning, where I felt the sentences and descriptions were longer than male writing tends to be – especially when the man in question is a white-collar lawyer, who tends to be more at home writing briefs than narratives. But overall, Alger convinced me that Charlie was male, especially in the relationship with Caleb. Charlie is bewildered by Caleb in a way that a mother – even a mother with a high-powered job – never seems to be. Even as the two become closer, Charlie maintains a distance from Caleb that mothers – who often say that their hearts grew legs and left their bodies when they gave birth – rarely seem to have. (For a similar book written by a man, take a look at Greg Olear’s Fathermucker, a first-person account from a stay-at-home dad.)
And yet, this book really isn’t about those issues of work-family balance that women struggle with. With Zadie in the house, Charlie never once has to leave a client meeting early to fetch a sick child from camp. He never has to bring a kid along to a work lunch. Still, the best parts of the book are Charlie’s attempts at bonding with Caleb, whose penchant for girls’ clothing has made him an outcast at camp.
The novel has a good pace, and will appeal to readers like myself who enjoy examining work/family conundrums. However, I found myself frustrated as the story played out. The word “transgender” is never used in question to Caleb (concern about sexual preference does come up.), even though transgender children and their parents are becoming more and more visible. Then this plot is dropped almost entirely, as Charlie and Zadie’s back story about their father takes almost center stage. As far as his career goes, after making his “Jerry Maguire” speech, Charlie does nothing Jerry Maguire-like for the rest of the book.
I looked forward to reading a novel about a widowed lawyer juggling fatherhood with an all-consuming career, and I enjoyed This Was Not the Plan. However, the overlap between the two was smaller than I’d expected.
Thanks to Get Red PR for the book in exchange for an honest review.
More by Cristina Alger: