The Fallback Plan

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Ten Books to Read Now That HBO’s Girls Is Back

The first moment I saw that one giant word “GIRLS” flash across the screen in all caps, I became utterly, hopelessly enamored of Lena Dunham’s HBO television show. Yes, I know the endless criticisms, both reasonable and totally unreasonable. No matter. The show speaks to me like no other television show currently on air, and I am beyond excited that it is back for a second season on Sunday.

But while Dunham’s lady-centered wry comedy may be singular in today’s television line-up, the world of literature is home to a multitude of books with the same appeal as Girls, books that feature a certain kind of female protagonist (usually one coming of age) or a certain kind of female narrator (pointed, self-deprecating, and ultimately wise). These are books that — like Girls — explore what it is like to be young and hungry — hungry for love and hungry for sex, but most of all, hungry for recognition and hungry for adulthood. Ultimately, the girls in these books, like the girls of Girls, are hungry to become the women they will one day be.

And yes, of course, the girls in question here, both on the show and in these books, are privileged enough that they are not literally hungry. Many of them are also privileged enough to live on their own in New York and to be more concerned with opportunity costs than financial costs. And yes, the girls in these books — like on the television show — are all white. I am not white (or at least I’m only half), but these happen to be the books that have jumped out at me, that made me feel as if something of my own life had been understood and articulated in a way that was both illuminating and reassuring. I welcome your suggestions for other books in the comments.

How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti: Many comparisons have been made between Heti’s novel and Girls, the most titillating of which obsess about both projects’ frank depictions of sex and shadows of autobiography. Less titillating but far more important are their shared concerns about the process of becoming an artist and also the intricacies of female friendship. The fictional Sheila and her best friend Margaux ostensibly fall out over a yellow dress, and Hannah and Marnie ostensibly fall out over the rent/Marnie buying a book by Hannah’s nemesis/which one of them is “the wound,” but really, both fights are ultimately about boundaries, both artistic and personal. It’s no surprise that Sheila and Margaux patch things up (though I won’t spoil how), and we have yet to see where things go for Hannah and Marnie, but both brutally honest portrayals do full justice to the complexity of a crumbling friendship, whether it’s eventually resuscitated or not.

The Fallback Plan by Leigh Stein: After graduating from college (with an oh-so-useful theater degree), 22-year-old Esther Kohler moves back home with her parents in suburban Illinois, where she takes a gig babysitting for the neighbors in order to pay her parents rent on her childhood bedroom. She quickly becomes involved with her charge’s father (shades of Jessa), as well as a Very Handsome friend her own age (complete with awkward — completely, terribly, realistically awkward — sex scene). Stein’s wry voice shines through the entire short novel, especially in the pages involving the Littlest Panda, a creation of Esther’s imagination that she wants to turn into a Chronicles of Narnia-inspired screenplay. There is, of course, more to Esther’s lethargy and indecision than meets the eye, but her (and Stein’s) self-aware take on the self-pitying recession-grad generation is compelling reading even without the eventual reveal about Esther’s backstory.

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy: The protagonist of Dundy’s 1958 novel is Sally Jay Gorce, a 21-year-old American girl, straight out of college and living abroad for two years on her uncle’s dime. The cult classic was widely praised (by the disparate likes of Ernest Hemingway and Groucho Marx) when it was originally released, and attained cult status anew when NYRB Press reissued it in 2007 (and not just because of the nude figure on the cover). Of all the girls on this list, Gorce seems most like the proto-Girl — a girl who is self-avowedly “hellbent on living,” getting herself into (and out of) escapade after escapade during her time in France. Many of Gorce’s misadventures involve a heavy dose of slapstick, starting on page one with our introduction to our heroine, who is sitting at a Parisian bar having a morning cocktail, wearing an evening dress because all her other clothes are at the cleaners.

The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Volume 1: 1931-1934 by Anaïs Nin: When Hannah’s diary got her into a mess of trouble, she probably took comfort in the tradition of great literary diarists before her, of whom Anaïs Nin is the reigning queen. In Volume One (of the six expurgated adult diaries), Nin talks freely — one might say obsessively — about Henry Miller and his wife June, her psychoanalysis, and her relationship with her father. But you don’t read Nin’s diaries for the plot points so much as the arcs of emotion and insight, as well as the searing descriptions of her friends and their relationships, (sound familiar, Marnie and Charlie?). Still, Nin perhaps has more in common with Jessa than with Hannah, as in this entry, reminiscent of the Jessa-ism that is possibly the most famous line from Season One of Girls: “Psychoanalysis did save me because it allowed the birth of the real me, a most dangerous and painful one for a woman, filled with dangers; for no one has ever loved an adventurous woman as they have loved adventurous men…I may not become a saint, but I am very full and very rich. I cannot install myself anywhere yet; I must climb dizzier heights.” Then again, Jessa would never be caught dead “journaling.”

The Lone Pilgrim by Laurie Colwin: In this collection of stories, the women are farther along the path to adulthood than Hannah and her crew — many are married, own homes, have stable careers — but they are no less lost. These are stories about new lovers and ex-lovers and the complexities of romantic love in all its forms, stories in which the women seek love as a form of stability but also rebel against the expectations of a relationship. In a turn that Jessa would appreciate, one of Colwin’s young female characters gets married in order to prove that she’s serious-minded, but meanwhile maintains a constant low-level high throughout the courtship and marriage. Beyond their thematic overlap, the stories are linked by Colwin’s diamond-sharp prose and emotional acuity. At the end of the collection’s eponymous story, Colwin writes of a woman who has married the man she loves and whose life appears to be in place, “Those days were spent in quest — the quest to settle your own life, and now the search has ended. Your imagined happiness is yours…It is yours, but still you are afraid to enter it, wondering what you might find.”

I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloane Crosley: Crosley’s first collection of essays covers well-trodden 20-something-living-in-New-York ground, mostly having to do with a privileged class of horrors: the horrible first boss, the horrors of getting locked out of your apartment, the horrors of moving (from one Upper West Side apartment to another), the horrors of being a maid-of-honor. Still, Crosley’s sardonic and self-aware take on those seemingly unremarkable rites of passage elevates them to true moments of insight and recognition. Not to mention laugh-out-loud (or at least smile visibly) lines like: “People are less quick to applaud as you grow older. Life starts out with everyone clapping when you take a poo and goes downhill from there.” And as we know, Dunham loves a good bathroom scene. Hannah Horvath couldn’t have said it better herself.

The Group by Mary McCarthy: When The Group was first published in 1963, Norman Podhoretz dismissed it as “a trivial lady writer’s novel,” the kind of criticism that has dogged female artists — and has already, unsurprisingly, been hurled at Lena Dunham — throughout time. Of course, McCarthy’s novel, which follows a group of eight female friends after they graduate from Vassar and move to New York City in the 1930s, is anything but trivial. At the time it was published, The Group was considered revolutionary — it was banned in Australia while simultaneously spending two years on The New York Times bestseller list. A full 50 years after its publication (and 80 years after the story’s events), the novel’s satire-tinged account of the women’s lives offers a nuanced portrait of love and sex and birth control, marriage and divorce, childbirth and breastfeeding, professional ambition and thwarted dreams, and the fluctuations of female friendship.

The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank: This collection of linked short stories centers around Jane Rosenal, who, like so many intelligent young female protagonists, works in publishing in New York City. The collection does not exactly follow Jane’s personal search for love, though her love life figures largely in the stories; instead, the stories act more like a romantic education, as Jane observes and interacts with different forms of love as she makes her way from teenager to young woman to adult. Last in the collection, the title story descends into rom-com territory, though Zosia Mamet might be able to work the same miracle with its one-dimensional material — a discussion of The Rules and a final moral to Be Yourself — as she has with the hilarious but terribly flat character of Shoshanna. Still, Bank’s sprightly prose and sympathetic voice run through all the stories, making for an engaging, enjoyable read.

Emma by Jane Austen: Lena Dunham has said that Clueless ranks among her influences, and there would be no Clueless (and perhaps no Hannah Horvath) without Jane Austen’s original meddlesome, egotistic, incredibly flawed heroine, Emma. While Hollywood would have you read Emma as a straight rom-com — and Emma as an unimpeachable heroine — it’s better read the classic novel with the same lens of dramatic irony that the discerning viewer applies to Girls. Hannah is not supposed to be a character who makes all the right decisions; we root for Hannah, but we do not necessarily agree with her every move. In Emma’s case, the close reader cannot necessarily even root for her by the end; if you pay attention, Emma is revealed to be much closer to the original Mean Girl rather than the perfect innocent portrayed in the movies. Just like Hannah, Emma is clueless; we can only hope that by the end of Girls, Hannah will have grown up more than Austen’s beloved-but-actually-kind-of-terrible protagonist.

Crazy Salad: Some Things About Women by Nora Ephron: Although a few of the essays in Ephron’s landmark collection are somewhat prohibitively dated (the ones concerning Watergate, in particular, rely on a detailed knowledge of the scandal that is unlikely in 2013), most are as relevant today as they were when Ephron wrote them 40 years ago. The best known in the collection, “A Few Words About Breasts,” tackles standards of female beauty that would ring all-too-true for Hannah (remember that cruel scene in which Jessa and Marnie bond by laughing about how small Hannah’s breasts are?). Ultimately, though, the collection’s real legacy is its examination of the Women’s Movement, a reminder — all-too-relevant in today’s political atmosphere — of the struggle for the gender equality (or at least semblance of it) that many 20-something women have simply grown up with. In the final essay of the collection, Ephron offers a piece of wisdom that might benefit the girls of Girls as they continue on with their belated coming-of-age: “I was no good at all at any of it, no good at being a girl; on the other hand, I am not half-bad at being a woman.”

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A Year in Reading: Rachel Fershleiser

So far this year, I’ve read 56 books, an unpublished manuscript, and 100 pages of Moby-Dick. I loved many of them, although not Moby-Dick (Sorry Herman Melville/Amanda Bullock.). But the reading experience I feel most evangelical about was one of those brief passionate affairs, red hot and over too soon.

I bought Girls in White Dresses by Jennifer Close from the front table at Word Brooklyn on the Sunday night of Memorial Day weekend and read it the next day, in one sitting, on a flowered blanket in Madison Square Park. It’s honest, sharp, enjoyable and unnerving. It’s witty but it isn’t cute. It creeps into your stomach and makes you dizzy — at least it does if you’re a 32-year-old woman trying to figure out life and relationships and where the last 10 years went and where the next 50 are going.

While this book certainly covers floral bridesmaid dresses and date dissection over cocktails, it has a darker and more resonant undercurrent. It gives voice to my quiet suspicions that the decade following college graduation is one of loss after loss; a time of people you once loved immensely peeling away into parenthood or panic attacks or bad marriages or sudden religiosity or the suburbs. It captures those strange mixed feelings of trying to be happy for friends when they choose things you think you know will never make them happy; the helpless panic as the strongest and most ambitious feminists give up and give in or maybe just grow up and learn to compromise and who are you to judge anyway? It displays real wisdom about the ways that, over time, paths dead end and options disappear and life can feel like a narrowing of possibilities when you always thought it would be an ever-broadening horizon. Also, it’s funny.

When I finished, I did two things.

1) I wrote a blog post calling it “a perfect book” and recommending it thusly: “If you have ever been in your 20s or 30s, ever lived in New York or Chicago or D.C., ever been in a relationship that was good or bad or probably both, ever been politically engaged or diamond-ring engaged or had a baby or not wanted a baby or been an assistant or found out your ex married someone you both went to college with, oh my God you guys.”

2) I gave it to my best friend from college. She related to it so intensely she refused her mother-in-law’s request to borrow it because it would be too much like allowing her to spy on her life.

In general, my favorite literary genre this year was what I like to call “women-processing-their-shit books,” in which I also recommend Blueprints for Building Better Girls by Elissa Schappell, The Man of My Dreams by Curtis Sittenfeld, The Fallback Plan by Leigh Stein, Boys and Girls Like You and Me by Aryn Kyle, and anything by Nora Ephron or Cheryl Strayed.

More from A Year in Reading 2012

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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The Slacker in Modern Fiction: The Flâneur Goes to the Mall

In 19th-century France, the flâneur had an undefined route but a fairly specific path: the wandering observers of Baudelaire and Flaubert (the term comes from the verb flâner, French for “to stroll”) assessed society, notably urban life, with detached interest. These days, the term gets an extraordinary amount of play in the essays of James Wood, who goes into paroxysms of joy every time an eagle-eyed idler walks around and describes the scene in an illuminating way. In How Fiction Works, he writes: “This figure is essentially a stand-in for the author, is the author’s porous scout, helplessly inundated with impressions. He goes out into the world like Noah’s dove, to bring a report back.”

One of the keys to the flâneur and his porous qualities, in my mind, is his idleness: a character engaged in strenuous work has no time to hang out and observe; his insights will have to come from elsewhere. In the 19th century, it wasn’t all that strange to designate your protagonist a “loafer.” But today, this kind of aimlessness strikes an odd chord: it is in and of itself a plot point, a defining characteristic. Flaubert’s Parisian rambler who hangs around cafes, people watching, would today most likely be called a slacker.

Towards the middle of the 20th century, writers began to refashion the aimless observer. Dissatisfaction crept in, from Holden Caufield’s angst-ridden wanderings to Ignatius J. Reilly in The Confederacy of Dunces. Some say the term “slacker” was coined as early as 1898 — during the World Wars, it referred to draft dodgers — but it didn’t gain pop-culture appeal in America for nearly a century. Born in the ’80s and raised in the shadow of Generation X, I always saw the previous generation — Marty (and George) McFly, Wayne and Garth, Bill and Ted, Jay and Silent Bob, every classroom scene in Clueless, people who used the word “whatever” on a regular basis — as the epitome of slackerdom.

But it’s my generation that seems perpetually relegated to their parents’ basements. Recently, Emily St. John Mandel reviewed Leigh Stein’s The Fallback Plan, about a young woman who graduates from college and summarily retreats to her parents’ house instead of looking for work. Stein’s protagonist has been called a slacker, but something about her doesn’t quite fit the mold: Stein herself wrote in to add, “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…for successful, ambitious people, there’s a dark fantasy to just throw in the towel, give up, and eat cereal.”

I’m interested in characters that are living out that fantasy: what makes for a successful slacker novel? What propels a book when nothing seems to be propelling the protagonist? And how will the tradition of the flâneur be repurposed in the modern era — because isn’t the slacker ideally positioned for the role? I looked at two novels, published a quarter of a century and 8,000 miles apart. The first is Adam Wilson’s Flatscreen, out last month, and the second is Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August, published in 1988. They’re wildly different stylistically: where Wilson’s prose is choppy and erratic, like the cocktail of uppers one of his characters has probably just downed, Chatterjee’s sentences wind on languidly through sweltering afternoons, reminding us that despite holding a job in the Indian civil service, his protagonist is usually getting stoned. But the similarities between the books are numerous, beyond the rampant drug use. If a novel garners momentum from its characters’ desires, these two work because they are narrated by young, confused men who both want nothing more than to finally, actually want something.

At first glance, Adam Wilson’s protagonist, Eli Schwartz, may seem a less than ideal observer:

When I was ten, my parents took me to a specialist to get my hearing tested. Worried that I was going deaf because I never paid attention to anything anyone said. Doctor took me into a dark room, gave me headphones. I listened to a series of beeps, raised one finger each time I heard one. Other tests too. Results were suspiciously conclusive. Nothing wrong with my hearing whatsoever.

Eli is in his early 20s, and he’s not doing much of anything with his life: “Instead of college, sank deep into my basement abyss.” He later describes himself as a “glorified townie without the glory. No rugged good looks or blue-collar gas-station-employee pride.” Class is one of Eli’s major hang-ups: though his parents’ divorce bumped his mother and, by proxy, him, down an income bracket or two, he is still comparatively wealthy, and thus doesn’t have to get a job, something he barely wants to consider. In a chapter titled “Money:” Eli sums it all up in two sentences and a bullet point: “Safe to say I wasn’t instilled with respect for the dollar. Let’s not play the blame game.”

If it’s possible to redefine the idea of the flâneur in the 21st century, Eli is probably the place to start. He wanders, sure, but he’s largely stationary. The world comes to him, through the eponymous flatscreens — computers, phones, televisions, etc. Much of the book, in bulleted list form, mimics the pace and the language of the Internet. In fact, Eli is a trustworthy observer and a good porous scout: he’s blank, ready to be inundated with modern life, and abstractly searching for something to stir up some kind of desire and kick-start his inertia. “I wanted everything to mean something. Or at least for something to mean something.”

The book is littered with pop-culture references, particularly to the movies: titles of films, in parentheses, that resemble a situation at hand, and in the final section, there’s a surprisingly affecting twist on movie tropes, in which Eli’s fantasies for getting his life together, or merely getting a life, spiral off in every direction. “Possible Ending #4 (Dark but Ultimately Life-Affirming Screwball Dramedy):…It’s possible I end up a schoolteacher for the mentally unhinged. When Kahn dies I cry fountains, realize how much I’ve learned, how much I still have to learn.”

The unemployed aren’t inherently slackers, as Leigh Stein (and I, in years past) well know. But employment doesn’t always turn a slacker into a productive member of society. Upamanyu Chatterjee’s protagonist, Agastya Sen, is a reluctant trainee with the IAS, the Indian Administrative Service, and he’s been stationed in backwater Madna, far from the megalopolises in which he’s been raised. In a way, his own disinterest and laziness offer up good metaphors for the byzantine bureaucracy of the IAS, but Agastya’s disinterest is willful, at times petulant. “He himself made no effort to know his new world; as it unfolded, it looked less interesting to him; and later, even to see how far he could extend his ignorance became an obscure and perverse challenge.”

Agastya, who is alternately known as Ogu, August, and English, a reference to the Anglo-Indians that is delicately explored, leaves his post after lunch and rarely returns, smoking a lot of weed (“Agastya, for the nth time in his life, was glad that he was stoned.”) and spending the intervening hours in the waffling of post-adolescent confusion:

He wondered at the immensity of the Indian Railways, millions of people travelling thousands of kilometres every day — why they did so baffled him. On less calm mornings, he would think about his situation and his job, why he wasn’t settling down, whether his sense of dislocation was only temporary, or whether it was a warning signal. But there was nothing specific that he wanted to do, no other job, and then with a smile he would retort, Yes, there was, design colour schemes for trains, be a domesticated male stray dog, or like Madan, even half-wish to be murdered.

Late in the book, even after he’s matured a little and begun to accept his responsibilities, Agastya still waffles. Visiting a leper colony, he thinks that he envies its founder, now renamed Baba Ramanna, “most of all for knowing, when he had been merely Shankaran Karanth, how to master his future.” Like Eli Schwartz, Agastya makes for a sympathetic protagonist because he’s so quietly apathetic, and also like Eli, his lack of convictions and essential blankness make him an ideal observer. Everyone else has chest-thumping opinions about India: his direct superior; the chief of police; his father, uncle, and friends from home; his new friends in Madna, including an outspoken cartoonist; and a couple — an Indian woman and an English man — who pass through town on a sort of pilgrimage. If the flâneur’s observations are meant for the urban street scene, I think the same principle can be applied in English, August, despite its rural setting: Agastya paints a rich portrait of the IAS, and of a country that only he seems to realize is impossible to describe, or pin down.

Both of these novels have been called “darkly comic.” The king of blurbs, Gary Shteyngart (who blurbed himself recently, saying, “Gary Shteyngart’s blurbs are touching, funny, and true. This is a blurber to watch.”), wrote of English, August that, “Comparing Upamanyu Chatterjee with any other comic novelist is like comparing a big fat cigar with a menthol cigarette.” Of Flatscreen, he said, “OMFG, I nearly up and died from laughter. This is the novel that every Young Turk will be reading on their way to a job they hate and are in fact too smart for.” They are both very funny books: Eli’s got a lot of great one-liners, and Agastya seems tuned into some perpetual joke, which he supplements with compulsive lying. In a way, the comedy is essential: an unfailingly serious book about a man who wants nothing and does very little would be pretty grim. And the humor helps Wilson and Chatterjee tackle generational concerns, because both Eli and Agastya seem convinced that their generations are the ones that will put an end to everything. “Was it true I’d missed the party?” Eli wonders. “This was it for us: reality TV, virtual reality, planes into buildings.” In the final pages of English, August, the cartoonist, Sathe, tells Agastya, “You see, no one, but no one, is remotely interested in your generation, August.”

What makes these boys, and these books, so likeable? They’re gentle, harmless, and fairly charming. They’re smart and funny and wasting their talents. They’re more than a little lost and fully aware of the fact. And in that way, they’re most of us, stripped of our responsibilities and wayward ambitions, if we even have any. They offer perfect reflecting surfaces for their respective times and places. In their lack of desires they show us what we want, as societies, and perhaps even as individuals. The reader might say, “This might be bad, but at least I want to leave my mother’s basement.”

Illustration by Dominick Rabrun.

Arrested Development: Leigh Stein’s The Fallback Plan

I’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.

The 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.

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