All Fall Down
By Jennifer Weiner
Atria Books. 388 pp. $26.99
You can't review a book by Jennifer Weiner in a vacuum; her author persona is inseparable from her aggressively good-humored literary activism on behalf of women authors, who are still underrepresented in book reviews. Just as Beyoncé, the pop star cum feminist über-seductress is all about having her cheesecake and eating it too, so Weiner firmly insists (let's not say stridently) that she be taken seriously as an author and a feminist, on the basis of novels orchestrated to reach the widest possible audience: The genre that some disparage, and some praise, as chick lit.
All Fall Down is her best book yet. The story follows mom-blogger Allison Weiss as she rationalizes herself into a frightening prescription pill addiction. Allison has it all - a hot husband, an appealingly bossy little girl, a trendy career, and, in good Weiner fashion, a highly relatable body-image problem and an aversion to exercise. As per the genre, the novel is a romp through denial, on-cue epiphany, and redemption, peppered with references to popular brand names.
It would be too easy to stop there. Allison Weiss is complex. Like her creator, Allison simultaneously benefits from and critiques the consumer culture in which she's enmeshed: Regarding a controversial Wall Street Journal story about her blog, Allison thinks, "It's not as if the people could reach through the screen to actually hurt me. To them, I was a name, a picture, a thing. Feminism, or Women Today."
By dealing with addiction, Weiner mines a dark vein, and here the writing gleams. In a harrowing flashback, Allison recalls sneaking off to a gift shop as a child. There she encounters a strange man "with brown teeth" from whom "the smell of liquor was so thick . . . it was almost visible, like the cloud surrounding Pig Pen in the Peanuts comic strip. As I stared, the man shook my shoulder again. 'Did you see?'
"I shook my head. I hadn't seen anything, but even if I had, I would have denied it. There was something wrong with this man; even a little kid like me could tell . . . . Worse than the waves of liquor smell that rolled off him was the feeling of not-rightness . . . The sense of that morning had never left me . . . There was a parallel universe that ran alongside the normal world . . . you could accidentally push the curtain aside and end up in that other place, where everything was different and everything was wrong." We never find out what the man was referring to, leaving the young Allison innocent regarding her own future blindness.
Weiner's best writing explores that wrongness. Allison's genius for deniability escalates as the wreckage mounts. Narrowly missing a car accident, she is plied with coffee and almost busted by Mrs. Dale, the one teacher at her daughter's preschool who "was not impressed with your special little snowflake."
When the pills run out, Allison tries "not to remember licking the inside of the jewelry box where I'd found the final two Vicodin," and downs a medication obtained from a mini-clinic, which precipitates a nasty withdrawal, during which her tight-lipped husband Dave bundles her off to rehab. Allison faces a monthlong stint "on legs that felt as though something large and angry had been chewing on them all night long."
Weiner's portrayal of rehab is not inspirational, but sharp, sad, and mordantly funny. The contrast between Allison's screwups and the other junkies' tales of "abuse, neglect, and damage" confirms her belief that she's "just having technical difficulties."
She's an astute critic: "Most [rehabs] were private businesses . . . all of them were for-profit." On weekends, the regular staff went home, "leaving the youngest and greenest to tend the farm. The inmates were running the asylum . . . . One . . . casually confided that, not six months prior, she, too had been a Meadowcrest patient."
Weiner's account of Allison's hard-won turnaround is pitch-perfect. She quickly learns "Rehab 101," mouthing contrition as she plans a far-fetched escape.
She fakes it even in the presence of her therapist, Bernice: "New girl. Allison. What are you here for?" She's the naïf among a memorable bevy of street-wise addicts, whose recidivism isn't enough to scare her straight. "You'd treat this like a joke, too, if you'd been through it five times," says one.
Allison Weiss is bigger than the plotting in All Fall Down, a memorable character wisecracking her way through despair. Her rock bottom, when it comes, is well-drawn and convincing.
Weiner's devotees may want predictable outcomes, while her detractors may not have read her at all, preferring to envision her arm-wrestling certain male authors of lit-ra-cha. In fact, Weiner is a far better writer than she's given credit for, and here she proudly transcends the clichés without ceding the territory of her chosen genre.
Jennifer Weiner: "All Fall Down"
7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine St.
Admission: Free. Information: 215-567-4341 or www.freelibrary.org. EndText