Arrested Development: Leigh Stein’s The Fallback Plan

February 22, 2012 | 17 5 min read

covercoverI’ve been thinking lately about adulthood. When it begins, what expectations we might reasonably have of those just entering through its gates, and how we represent it in our fiction. I realized recently that virtually all of the coming-of-age stories one encounters — okay, most of the ones I’ve encountered — involve growing up too quickly. There is the traumatic incident after which childhood is over and life will never the same (John Knowles’ A Separate Peace and about a million other books, few of which are as good as Knowles’), the creepy secret that heralds the end of innocence (Allison Espach’s The Adults), the sleazy secret that gets you institutionalized (a recent book I’d mention if naming it in this context wouldn’t give away the plot), etc. It’s an interesting feature of Leigh Stein’s debut novel, The Fallback Plan, that she takes precisely the opposite approach.

coverThe Fallback Plan concerns a girl — difficult to think of her as a women, because she’s an adult only in years — who’s growing up too slowly, who doesn’t want to grow up at all, and who, more to the point, is so coddled that she doesn’t really need to. Stein’s narrator, Esther Kohler, is a recent graduate of the theatre program at Northwestern. Esther’s feeling is that in the absence of either a job or a trust fund, her options are between moving back in with her parents or “suffering the rancid fate of a nomadic couchsurfer.”

She chooses the former, camping out in her childhood bedroom while she figures out what to do next. This wasn’t anyone’s original plan, but she’s secretly relieved to be back at home. The adult world proved to be a bit much, actually. It would be nice, she thinks, to never have to be a part of it, to never have to suffer the hassle of work, to be taken care of forever. She smokes pot with her friends, takes recreational Vicodin, and spends a great deal of time hoping to develop “a chronic illness that would entitle me to monthly checks from the government, tender sympathy from my loved ones, and a good deal of time in bed with the collected works of Frances Hodgson Burnett.”

It’s a tricky proposition, the Peter Pan novel. A subset of readers will smile — or wince — in recognition of an adolescence that extends far into one’s 20s, a hazy longing for the comforts of one’s childhood home, a desire to return to one’s parents after college and hold on to ease a little longer.

But there’s another subset of readers to whom that first subset seems, well, frankly a little soft. My tribe didn’t have any particular prospects either, but we worked our multiple low-paying jobs, we balanced shifts at coffee shops with days at school while we sank into student loan debt, we swept floors and made lattes and washed dishes, we put up with bad roommates and cockroaches. We took buses and trains to our lousy apartment shares in dangerous neighborhoods, we lived on noodles and did our laundry in the bathroom sink during those last few days every month before rent was due. Because we had to, and because our understanding of adulthood was that you’re supposed to make your own way in the world, and that it isn’t supposed to be easy.

I’m not romanticizing this. It isn’t unreasonable to want to skip most of these experiences, especially the cockroaches and the unstable roommates. I’m trying to explain why it’s easy for someone like me to dismiss a narrator like Esther Kohler, whose idea of a job search involves dropping off résumés at exactly two places and then printing up some dog-walking flyers that she doesn’t distribute.

But then, I do have tremendous respect for authors who are willing to present unlikable narrators, and what Stein is laying out, in prose so lucid and simple that she makes it seem effortless, is a variation on American young adulthood so common that it does, I believe, deserve a place in our literature. A 2010 Pew Research Center study found that 85 percent of that year’s college graduates planned on moving back in with their parents. It would be heartless to imagine that at least some of those graduates weren’t exactly thrilled with this prospect.

Moreover, the world has changed, and unemployment statistics suggest that the always-complicated business of trying to become an adult is probably harder now than it was when I was Esther Kohler’s age. This is what I tell myself, anyway, because I don’t want to believe that 85 percent of 2010 college graduates — or any percentage, actually, when I think about it — moved home because being an adult is kind of hard and they just don’t really feel up to it quite yet.

What to reveal, when: it’s one of the trickier parts of plotting a novel, and it’s an area where I believe The Fallback Plan falters slightly. Fictional characters don’t have to be likable, but they do have to be interesting, and there is nothing overwhelmingly captivating about a lethargic young person who just doesn’t particularly feel like growing up and who kind of wishes she had some kind of a permanent disability that would excuse her from work for the rest of her life, who feels entitled to a room in her parents’ house and food from her parents’ refrigerator.

But the picture changes somewhat when, some distance into the book, the circumstances of Esther’s last year of college become clear. This isn’t just a shiftless, entitled girl who doesn’t want to grow up. She’s a shiftless, entitled girl who doesn’t want to grow up and who has mental health issues of sufficient severity that she was briefly committed the previous spring. A character who I’d struggled to care about was cast in a suddenly altered light. She does want to avoid the adult world, but also she’s suffered tremendously there.

Esther’s parents are somewhat less interested in Esther remaining a teenager forever than Esther is. When they decide to start charging her rent, Esther takes a job as a babysitter to a neighborhood family, the Browns, who have recently suffered an unspeakable loss. Esther had met Nate and Amy Brown the previous winter, at a holiday party thrown by her parents.

They had a baby and a toddler at home with a sitter, but that was the last night when Nate and Amy Brown had two children on Earth. They returned home to find that the baby had died in her sleep. Now Nate works long hours and Amy stays home with their surviving daughter, four-year-old May. At first glance, the family is surprisingly functional, but the more time Esther spends with them, the more obvious the fault lines become.

Amy and Nate are disconnected from one another, still reeling, and both begin to treat Esther as a confidante. Nate stays late at the office. Amy spends hours locked in the attic, working on a mysterious project. Esther finds herself falling in love with little May. Stein’s sensitive treatment of the Browns’ grief and disconnection is the strongest part of the book. Esther’s gradual realization that she has to face the complications of the adult world is carefully rendered and a pleasure to read.

is a staff writer for The Millions. Her most recent novel, Station Eleven, was a 2014 National Book Awards finalist. She is married and lives in Brooklyn.


  1. Emily, I really appreciate all the time and thought you put into this review! You raise a lot of interesting points, and prolonged adolescence is obviously something I’ve been thinking a lot about, too.

    I usually resist responding to reviews, but I just would like to point out that the book is set in the month immediately after Esther’s graduation. She’s depressed from the beginning (though the details of her breakdown aren’t revealed until later, as you point out), so I was really trying to pick a very particular moment from which to launch the narrative: she’s home, she’s depressed, and she’s without prospects. She applies for a couple jobs and then eats cereal for half of chapter one. I won’t deny that.

    But Esther changes as she takes on the charge of May. Esther isn’t a character destined to spend the rest of her twenties as some slacker loser who lives at home. This is just a temporary blip in her life as an otherwise successful young woman, and I hope my novel resonates with those in a similar boat: not just the perennial “slackers” out there, but the temporarily lost as well. Esther’s fantasies are just that: fantasies. I talked about slacker fantasies in a recent interview ( for successful, ambitious people, there’s a dark fantasy to just throw in the towel, give up, and eat cereal, and that’s where the book started for me.

  2. Responding to a review of your own work less than an a half hour after it’s posted paints a weird picture.

  3. Ben, why? She happened to read the review when it was posted and crafted a gracious, well thought-out response. I don’t see anything wrong with that. This is the Internet, it’s a forum for instant communication. It’s great when there’s an open conversation about a particular title.

  4. Well said, Brian. I really appreciate it whenever authors take the time to respond. Like you said, it’s the internet, it’s meant for communication.

    I enjoyed THE FALLBACK PLAN, but I’m of the same generation as its protagonist, Esther, so perhaps her take on the post-grad mopes didn’t affect me in the same way as they did Emily. I know (of) a handful of real-life Esthers.

    Emily’s right that Esther’s not the most likeable narrator (although I will admit, I wish she’d babysat me as a child). But I don’t think she needs to be for the novel to succeed. (For the record, I don’t think Emily’s suggesting this, either.) And I also think it’s important to note that the whole novel takes place in the span of a couple treacherous months — and that Esther definitely matures, and that this has to do with how her expectations of home life, love life, and general self-fulfillment start skewing further and further from what she’d anticipated/hoped for. I feel like all of my friends who weren’t immediately employed after college went through the same thing (though perhaps to varying degrees).

  5. Brian, because responding to a review 27 minutes after it was posted says that the author has Google Alerts set up and is reading reviews as they’re delivered to her inbox, and that paints a weird picture of the author. Besides the basic weirdness of an author responding to a review, which is considered pretty universally inadvisable.

  6. Ben, The Millions has a Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr presence as well. It’s totally within the realm of possibility that she stumbled upon the review from any of those outlets. With that, I retire from the point.

  7. Nick and Brian, thanks for jumping in!

    I was tagged on Twitter, and that’s how I saw the review. Like I said, I don’t usually respond to reviews (this is, in fact, the first time I’ve ever responded to a review, and my book has been out for seven weeks), but The Millions is one of my favorite literary blogs, I read it almost every day, and I like Emily’s writing, so I felt like commenting would be a safe/sane thing to do.

    Isn’t that one of the pleasures of the internet? Public discourse? The Millions allows comments for a reason.

  8. Leigh, that’s a fair point you made in your first comment. I possibly should have made it clearer in the review that the book takes place not long after Esther graduates college.

    But when I consider the question, what I was reacting to wasn’t so much the length of time Esther had actually been staying with her parents, but her apparent lack of interest in doing anything about it (e.g., as demonstrated by her unwillingness to look for work), and her stated aspirations, which do seem to tend toward a hazy longing for a sort of extended adolescence. (Her half-serious desire for some sort of chronic ailment that might exempt her from the adult world comes up more than once, if memory serves.)

    But anyway, there was a lot about this book that I liked a lot. I really liked the clarity and simplicity of the prose style. In a longer piece I would’ve gone into Amy’s diorama obsession and the relationship between Esther and May a little more fully — I thought both those things were wonderful.

  9. I think it’s commendable that the author responded to Emily’s review. She didn’t get all pissy about the piece, she just added to the conversation.

    And what’s wrong with Google Alerts? Sheesh, people.

  10. Ben wrote: ‘an author responding to a review […] is considered pretty universally inadvisable.’

    Considered by whom? Many authors respond to reviews.

  11. Your intelligence and style makes all rules of protocol and etiquette irrelevant. Go ahead, Leigh – post whatever you want whenever – don’t pay attention to anything painted green.

  12. Leigh, responding to the review was a brave thing to do. One of the perks of the digital shrunken world that we currently live in is that readers do have the opportunity to engage in dialogues with the people who read their books. And as readers, we are able to go beyond the text to learn more about the writers’ motives. I agree that judging Esther’s life prospects based on this month alone, is a bit harsh. People have been writing about the difficulties of transitioning from college to adulthood since before the great recession. Just ask the writer of The Graduate.

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