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Jewish Journal

Books: It’s mom vs. daughter in Weiner’s latest novel

by Danielle Berrin

May 8, 2008 | 6:00 pm

What bestselling author Jennifer Weiner remembers most about her bat mitzvah is her hair.

"It was really unfortunate hair, really tragic -- like short and feathered and awful," said Weiner, author of "In Her Shoes," which was adapted as a 2005 film starring Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette.

But her embarrassingly off-color hairstyle mirrored her unpretentious 1982 celebration, a simple affair where a few relatives joined her for lunch after her Torah reading.

"I remember the first big bash at a country club," Weiner said about her first encounter with b'nai mitzvah excess. "The parents rented a Pac-Man video machine that you could play without having to put quarters in -- I don't think I have words to say how incredible that was for us kids."

It's a far cry from today's b'nai mitzvah, where the emphasis has been placed on the red-carpet party and not the religious ritual. And it's the shift in tradition that motivated Weiner's latest novel, "Certain Girls" (Atria Books, $26.95) in which an eccentric, nontraditional family prepares for a daughter's bat mitzvah. In the book, Weiner attempts to reconcile generational differences in a varying family fabric as her characters confront both the superficial and meaningful aspects of the Jewish rite of passage.

"I'm always interested in moments of rupture, dissention, controversy and change in my characters' lives," Weiner said about why she chose to explore a girl's bat mitzvah in her sixth book. "It seemed like an easy place to start -- there is so much there to fight about!"

Especially when your narrators are a mother and daughter.

Because "Certain Girls" is a sequel to Weiner's earlier work, "Good in Bed," she wanted to look at her lead character through a different set of eyes: "Who is a harsher judge of a mother than a daughter?" Weiner, the mother of two daughters, wonders aloud.

The story is told from the point of view of dual narrators, Cannie Shapiro and her daughter, Joy, as they each grapple with the social and religious demands of the occasion, clashing in their opposite attitudes regarding the tradition.

Cannie, confused by her own less-than-desirable bat mitzvah experience, feels a bit like a b'nai mitzvah pariah and wants a meaningful occasion. Joy, on the other hand, is completely apathetic toward the religious rite and more concerned with fitting in with the fashionable crowd at school. The solution, for Joy, means throwing a lavish, expensive party contrary to everything her mother values.

At a synagogue informational meeting, mother and daughter are asked to write down the words that describe an ideal b'nai mitzvah. Joy finds herself at a loss: "I stared at my blank page, thinking. Everybody happy, I wrote. Then Broadway theme. And CD favors with music from 'Grease.' I looked at my mother's paper and saw that she had written Judaism and tradition and God."

Dress shopping is even more polarizing and, naturally, Joy is petrified when she discovers her mother's plan to wear something she (gasp!) already owns to her only child's bat mitzvah.

The generational divide between mother and daughter illuminates the contrast between Weiner's youth, when fancy parties were not the central focus, and today, when they represent the zeitgeist of young adulthood.

But party planning isn't the only thing that has detracted from enjoying a meaningful religious experience. For many families, the b'nai mitzvah process can become a source of deep tension and conflict. Weiner chose to explore a "blended" family in order to exemplify the shifting definition of modern Jewish families -- which might include divorced parents, adoptive parents, interfaith or mixed-race couples.

In the novel, mother and daughter, biological father, adoptive father and gay grandmother are all at odds regarding the details, but eventually find comfort in sharing the lifecycle event that marks a child as an adult in Jewish tradition.

The portrait of adolescence also provided a framework for Weiner to explore another favorite theme: self-image.

The book's heroine, Cannie, is famously a "larger woman" who was traumatized when her ex-boyfriend wrote a humiliating column about his affair with an overweight woman. Throughout her career as a journalist and novelist, Weiner has often written about full-figured women who get the guy. She recently signed a seven-figure development deal with the ABC network, in which she hopes to spotlight diverse female characters.

"I always write about the big girls getting some kind of happy ending, because I think that's an important story to tell," Weiner said. "In an age when you pick up any celebrity tabloid, you would read that and think women came out in two sizes: 0 and 2."

Hollywood already figures in Weiner's work. She notes a particularly disturbing scene in "Certain Girls" when a mother hires fake paparazzi to take photos of guests as they arrive at the b'nai mitzvah party. The bit was inspired by a real-life situation in which one of Weiner's friends was asked to do the same thing at a celebration, but Weiner sees no place for such shenanigans at a ceremony that is supposed to be about religion, community and God.

As the mother of two young daughters -- a 5-month-old and a 5-year-old -- Weiner is already pondering what kind of experience she hopes her own girls have when they come of age.

"Honestly, I think this book was working through my own anxiety about the parties my daughters will demand when they're old enough," Weiner said, adding that, if that happens, she and her husband will lay down the law. She hopes her daughters will embrace their Jewish adulthood at their current congregation, Philadelphia's Society Hill Synagogue, where they feel part of a community.

In the end, Weiner says, a b'nai mitzvah is about compromise and finding a place where everybody is "happy enough."

"I think that no matter how the ceremonies change or parties change or discussion around them changes, there is something timeless and transcendent about the [b'nai] mitzvah, about 'You are now an adult and have responsibilities and obligations,' and that's a beautiful, holy thing," Weiner said. "I am scared and excited to see how my daughters will handle it."

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