Blockbuster #1 New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Weiner returns with an irresistible story about a young woman trying to make it in Hollywood…
Actors aren’t the only ones trying to make it in Hollywood.…At twenty-three, Ruth Saunders left her childhood home in Massachusetts and headed west with her seventy-year-old grandma in tow, hoping to make it as a screenwriter. Six years later, she hits the jackpot when she gets The Call: the sitcom she wrote, The Next Best Thing, has gotten the green light, and Ruthie’s going to be the showrunner. But her dreams of Hollywood happiness are threatened by demanding actors, number-crunching executives, an unrequited crush on her boss, and her grandmother’s impending nuptials.
Set against the fascinating backdrop of Los Angeles show business culture, with an insider’s ear for writer’s room showdowns and an eye for bad backstage behavior and set politics, Jennifer Weiner’s new novel is a rollicking ride on the Hollywood roller coaster, a heartfelt story about what it’s like for a young woman to love, and lose, in the land where dreams come true.
Jennifer Weiner is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of fourteen books, including Good in Bed, The Littlest Bigfoot, and her memoir Hungry Heart: Adventures in Life, Love, and Writing. A graduate of Princeton University and contributor to the New York Times Opinion section, Jennifer lives with her family in Philadelphia. Visit her online at JenniferWeiner.com.
If it’s good news, there’s going to be a lot of people on the call, Dave had told me. Bad news, it’ll just be one person from the studio, the executive in charge of the project. I lifted the phone to my ear, feeling like the air had gained weight and my arm was moving through something with the consistency of tar. My heartbeat hammered in my ears. My jeans and T-shirt felt too small, the sunshine in my bedroom stabbed at my eyes, and the atmosphere felt thin, as if I was working harder than I normally did to pull oxygen into my lungs. Please, God, I thought—me, the girl who hadn’t been in a synagogue since my grandma and I had left Massachusetts, who’d barely remembered to fast last Yom Kippur. But still. I was a woman who’d lost her parents, who’d survived a dozen surgeries and emerged with metal implants in my jaw, the right side of my face sunken and scarred, and an eye that drooped. In my twenty-eight years, I hadn’t gotten much. I deserved this.
“Hold for Lisa Stark, please!” came Lisa’s assistant’s singsong. My breath rushed out of me. Lisa was my executive at the studio. If she was the only one on the call, then this was the end of the road: the pass, the thanks-but-no-thanks. The no. I pushed my hair—lank, brown, unwashed for the last three days—behind my ears and sat on my bed. I would keep my dignity intact. I would not cry until the call was over.
I had told myself to expect bad news; told myself, a thousand times, that the numbers were not in my favor. Each year, the network ordered hundreds of potential new programs, giving writers the thumbs-up and the money to go off and write a pilot script. Of those hundreds of scripts, anywhere from two to three dozen would actually be filmed, and of those, only a handful—maybe four, maybe six, maybe as many as ten—would get ordered to series. My sitcom, The Next Best Thing, loosely based on my own life with my grandmother, had made the first cut three months ago. I’d quit my job as an assistant at Two Daves Productions in order to work full-time on the script, progressing through the steps from a single-sentence pitch—a college graduate who’s been laid off and her grandmother who’s been dumped move to an upscale assisted-living facility in Miami, where the girl tries to make it as a chef and the grandmother tries to live without a boyfriend—to a paragraph-long pilot summary, then a beat sheet detailing each scene, then a twelve-page outline, and, finally, a forty-page script.
For months I’d been writing, holed up in my bedroom, or carrying my computer to a neighborhood coffee shop, where I was surrounded by my more attractive peers, the ones who carried on long, loud telephone conversations in which they used the words my agent as often as possible, and did everything but prop tip cups and WRITER AT WORK signs in front of their laptops. I wrote draft after draft, turning each one over to the studio that had funded my efforts and to the network that would, I hoped, eventually air them. I considered each round of notes; I cut and edited, rewrote and rewrote again. I pored over books for expectant parents to give my characters just the right names, and spent days in the kitchens of local restaurants so I could nail the details of my heroine’s job.
Two weeks ago I’d delivered the absolutely, positively final final draft. I’d brushed my lips against every single one of the pages, kissing each one lightly before I slid the script into the hole-puncher, then slipped the brass brads through the holes and pushed them shut. To celebrate, I’d taken Grandma out to lunch at the Ivy, at her insistence. My grandmother, a petite and stylish woman of a certain age, was a great fan of the tabloids. Any restaurant where the paparazzi were a regular presence on the sidewalk was a place she wanted to be.
When we walked up to the stand, the maître d’ looked at me—in a plain black cotton shift dress and five-year-old zippered leather boots, with my laptop tucked under my arm—and gave a small but discernible shrug. My grandmother stepped toward him, smiling. If I dressed to maximize comfort and minimize attention, in shades of black and gray and blue, with a single necklace and sensible shoes, my grandmother had style enough for the both of us. That day she wore a black-and-white linen dress with a black patent-leather belt and black canvas espadrilles with bows that tied at her ankles. Her necklace was made of vintage Bakelite beads in poppy red, and she had a matching red patent-leather clutch in her hand and a red silk flower tucked behind one ear.
“How are you today?” she asked.
“Fine.” The host’s eyes lingered on her face as he tried to figure out if she was someone he should know, a screen star of yesteryear or one of the Real Housewives’ mothers. “This is my granddaughter,” said Grandma, and gave me a brisk poke in the small of my back. I stumbled obediently toward the podium with a can-you-believe-her look on my face, wishing I’d worn a necklace or a flower, or had thought to carry a pretty purse, or to have purchased one in the first place. “Ruthie is a writer.” The man behind the podium could barely suppress his wince. Writer, of course, was not the magic word that would cause him to usher us to the finest table in the restaurant and send over a bottle of free Champagne. Maybe writing for TV was a big deal elsewhere in America. In Hollywood, it meant less than nothing. Television writers were as common as cat dirt, and anyone with a working laptop and a version of Final Draft on her hard drive could claim to be one. You could almost see the word nobodies in a balloon floating above the man’s neatly barbered head as he led us to a table so far in the back it was practically in the kitchen. “Ladies,” he said.
Grandma paused and rested her hand on the man’s forearm. She tilted her face up toward his, batted her eyelashes, and gave him her gentle smile. “Would it be possible for us to have a booth? Or a table with a little more light?” Even at her age—seventy-six, although she’d have shot me if I’d said it out loud—her skin was still smooth, her eyes still bright, face vivid with rouge and lipstick, eyeliner and curling false lashes. Her waist was still slim, and her teeth were all her own. “We’re celebrating.”
He smiled back—it is, I have learned over the years, almost impossible to resist my grandma’s smile—and led us to a booth halfway between the open front porch lined with white umbrellas, where the stars would pose and preen for the cameras, and the dim back room, where the nobodies were sequestered. We shared pasta and a chopped salad, had a glass of wine apiece, and split tiramisu for dessert. As we ate, Grandma told me stories from the set of OR, the medical drama where she’d been working as an extra that week. “The kids they bring in,” she complained, running the edge of her spoon along the ridge of whipped cream that topped the tiramisu. “They’re out partying all night, so by the time they get in their gurneys, they’re exhausted. One of the ADs has to run around set five minutes before every take just making sure they’re not sleeping.”
“Tough gig,” I said. Grandma herself was spending eight hours a day sitting in the fake OR’s fake waiting room. Every day, from ten in the morning until six o’clock at night, with union-mandated breaks for lunch and snacks, she’d get paid to do what she might have done for free on a normal day—sit in an uncomfortable plastic chair with a tote bag of knitting in her lap, looking somewhere between bored and worried as she waited for her name to be called.
“You have to respect them,” she said, nibbling at the strawberry that sat on the side of the dessert plate. “Finding a way to get paid for sleeping. That’s initiative.”
“Nice work if you can get it,” I said, and flagged down our waiter, and paid the bill. Then Grandma had gone back to the Radford lot in the Valley, a neighborhood ten miles away from and ten degrees hotter than Hollywood, where a number of television shows and movies were shot, and I drove back to Hancock Park, a pretty neighborhood with spacious sidewalks and green lawns, to our apartment in a Spanish-style building called the Moroccan, to wait.
The network had started picking up its comedies a week after our lunch. I’d spent my days with my phone in my hand, from the moment I opened my eyes to the moment I closed them. I would perch the phone on the edge of the sink while I showered or brushed my teeth, and sleep with it plugged in underneath my pillow. My thumb was permanently hovering over the keypad, hitting “Refresh” on Deadline Hollywood and L.A. Confidential and all of the websites that covered the industry. I’d quit going to the gym after I realized how much I was annoying my fellow swimmers by pausing at the end of each lap to check my phone, which I’d stowed in a waterproof plastic Ziploc bag and left by the deep end. I was too nervous to sit through a meal, but I was snacking constantly, eating bags of pretzels and dehydrated carrot chips and Pirate’s Booty and sunflower seeds that I didn’t really want, and ignoring my boyfriend Gary’s phone calls, because there was, we’d learned, nothing he could say or do that would possibly calm me down.
Now here was my news, I thought, waiting for Lisa to get on the line, and the news wasn’t good. Oh, well. At least I’d be disappointed in private. After I’d made the mistake of telling Grandma that I should be hearing something this week, she’d announced her intention of giving me my space. “You don’t need an old woman breathing down your neck,” she’d said, all the while hovering within five feet of my person, dressed in her at-home attire of lounging pajamas or a brilliantly embroidered silk robe, her slippered feet noiseless on the wooden floors as she found one task after another to keep her busy, and nearby. So far she’d polished the silver, rearranged the china, emptied, scrubbed, bleached, and refilled the kitchen cupboards and the refrigerator, and regrouted the powder-room tile. That morning while we drank the smoothies she’d made of pineapple and mango and Greek yogurt, she’d announced her plans to rent a steamer and replace the dining-room wallpaper, even though I’d begged her to leave that job to the professionals.
“Nu?” she’d ask casually, just once every night, as she served dinner to me and Maurice, her gentleman caller. As usual, her nerves were made manifest in the reemergence of her Boston accent and in her cooking. On Friday, when the first wave of pickups was announced, she’d prepared a standing rib roast, Yorkshire pudding, potatoes au gratin, and homemade horseradish sauce. On Saturday, she’d served a breast of veal stuffed with cornbread and sausage and studded with garlic and rosemary, and on Sunday, she’d produced an entire Thanksgiving dinner, complete with two kinds of potatoes and a turkey she’d brined in the hot tub (our down-the-hall neighbors, devoted fitness buffs, had howled when they’d gone up to the roof for a little post-hike relaxation and found, instead of clear water, a fragrant brew of bay leaves and garlic cloves and juniper berries, with a kosher turkey bobbing merrily in the middle).
I would pick at my food, then excuse myself, telling Grandma and Maurice that I needed to work, closing my bedroom door behind me. Of course, I wasn’t working. I was staring at my phone, trying to will it to ring, and when I wasn’t doing that, I was dialing the first nine of the ten numbers that would have connected me with Dave, the only person I really wanted to talk to.
“Ruth?” The voice on the other end of the line startled me so badly that I gave a little squeak. The assistant, who had probably grown accustomed to the quirks of neurotic writers, pretended not to notice. “I have Lisa on the line. Please hold for Tariq, and Lloyd and Joan from the network.” I got to my feet, my heart lifting as quickly as it had sunk. The network. Oh God oh God oh God. The network doesn’t call unless it’s a pickup, Dave had said. They give the bad news to the agent, not the writer, and probably you’ll read it online before someone has the decency to tell you to your face that your show is dead. But maybe Dave was wrong. It had been years since his own show was green-lit, years since he’d had to sit in breathless, chest-pounding agony, waiting for the call, this call.
Voices came back on the line, one after another, ringing like bells.
“I have Tariq,” said Tariq’s assistant.
“Holding for Joan,” said Joan’s.
“Ruth?” asked Lisa. “Still there?”
“I’m here.” My voice was faint and quivery. I stood up, clenching my fists, my jaw, my abdominal muscles, trying to keep from shaking.
“Please hold,” said a new voice, male and brusque and impatient, “for Chauncey McLaughlin.”
I reeled back toward the bed. It felt like Christmas morning, New Year’s Eve, a birthday cake blazing with candles, a man down on one knee with a diamond ring in his hand. Joan was ABS’s head of comedy, and Chauncey McLaughlin (rumor was, he’d been born Chaim Melmann, then changed it to Charles, then gone full WASP with Chauncey) was the president of the network, a man I’d glimpsed once at a holiday party and had spoken with precisely never. Chauncey McLaughlin was the man who ultimately decided which of the pilots would get shot and, of those, which would make it onto the air in the fall and which would die quietly in the springtime.
“Who’ve I got?” he asked in a booming voice. Names were reeled off—Tariq, Lisa, Lloyd, Joan. “And Ruth, of course.”
“Hi,” I managed.
“Chauncey McLaughlin. I don’t want to keep you waiting. We’re going to go ahead and shoot The Next Best Thing.”
I closed my eyes. My legs went watery with relief. “Thank you,” I said. With the phone still pressed to my ear, I got up and unlocked the bedroom door to find my grandmother standing there. Evidently she’d given up even pretending that she wasn’t waiting for the call. I flashed her a thumbs-up. She sprang into the air and actually clicked her heels together, a feat she couldn’t have managed before her hip replacement two years before. Then she held my face in both of her hands. I could feel her hand on my left cheek and felt, as usual, nothing on my scarred right side as she kissed me, first on one cheek, then the other, before stowing her cell phone in her brassiere (“God’s pocket,” she called it) and hurrying off to the kitchen, undoubtedly to start giving her hundred closest friends and relations the news. A moment later, Maurice appeared in the living-room doorway, dressed for golf, with his tanned hands clasped over his head. He stood on his tiptoes to kiss me—Maurice, while not technically a little person, is a long way from tall, and a good six inches shorter than I am—then turned back down the hallway. Maurice had two sons, no daughters, and even though he’d never said so, my sense was that he liked having a young lady in his life. He’d pull out my chair, hold doors open for me, ask me if my boyfriend was treating me well, and say that if he wasn’t, he, Maurice, would be happy to talk to him about it.
As congratulations spilled over the line, from Lisa and Tariq and Chauncey, I found myself wishing not for my boyfriend, Gary, but for Dave. Dave, one of the Two Daves, was my boss and my mentor, the one who’d helped me craft the concept for The Next Best Thing, who’d overseen each revision of the script and assured me that I had just as good a shot at writing my own show as any other writer in Hollywood, even if I’d never been a staff writer, even if I was only twenty-eight. Dave’s promise to serve as my co-executive producer had gotten me the meeting with Joan, and Dave’s involvement, I was sure, had gotten the network to take a chance on an unknown quantity. A Hollywood veteran who’d co-created and run a successful sitcom for the past five years, Dave would know what to do next. And Gary. I’d have to call Gary and let him know.
“Ruth?” Chauncey’s voice was deep and warm, the sound of your favorite uncle who’d come for the holidays with fancy barrettes and foil-wrapped chocolate kisses and the latest Babysitters Club book. “Did we lose you?”
“No, I’m still here. I’m just a little overwhelmed. I . . . oh, God, I don’t even know what to say except thank you.”
“And that the show will be brilliant,” Lisa quickly added.
“We’re counting on it,” said Tariq. I could hear, or thought I could, the edge of desperation in his voice. Last year, Tariq had shepherded five pilots through the development process. The network had green-lit only one of them, a trippy hourlong dramedy set in an alternate universe where the dinosaurs were not extinct. The network had lavished millions of dollars on the sets and had cast a big-name former movie star as the lead. Even with all that, the show had lasted for exactly three episodes. Dave had told me, and the commentators on Deadline had confirmed, that if Tariq failed to improve his game, he’d be looking for a new job by the fall.
“Thank you,” I said again. “Thank you all so much for believing in me.”
“Of course,” said Chauncey casually, “we might need you to make some changes. Nothing drastic, just a little rewriting.”
“Oh my God. Of course. Absolutely. Whatever you need.” I’d thought the script was perfect when I turned it in, but obviously I’d be willing to tweak or cut or change it in whatever way the network deemed necessary to get it on the air.
There was another round of congratulations, and Chauncey said, “Got more calls, kiddo,” and, just like that, the call was over, and I sank onto my bed, clutching my telephone in one sweaty hand. I’d survived the first round of cuts. I would get to hire a cast, find my star, build the sets, shoot my pilot show. Instead of competing against dozens of scripts, I was up against maybe twenty-four . . . and even if The Next Best Thing never made it on the air, I’d have a lovely souvenir, a DVD of my dream made real.
I got to my feet, the same person I’d been ten minutes ago: average height and average weight (which made me practically obese in Hollywood), with thick, shoulder-length hair that could be coaxed to hang, sleek and glossy, when I spent the time or money to have it straightened. I had brown eyes, my grandma’s full pink lips, features that might have been almost pretty before the accident, broad shoulders and curvy hips, a solid torso thanks to years of swimming, and olive skin that tanned easily and stayed that way, even in what passed for winter out here. Except for the scars, which my clothes covered, and my face, which my clothes did not, I was normal—even, from certain angles, pretty. It was a problem. Sometimes, people would react to me after they’d seen me from behind or from my good side. Hey, baby, lookin’ good! construction workers would shout when I was walking with my gym bag over my shoulder and a baseball cap’s brim shadowing my face . . . or, if I was meeting my grandmother at a restaurant, a man would approach from my left side at the bar and start chatting me up. I’d take care of things as quickly as I could, pulling off my hat, pulling back my hair. I would show them the truth, who I really was. The catcalls would stop abruptly, and the man at the bar would suck in his breath, then scowl as if it were my fault, as if I was somehow playing a joke on him. Once, a homeless man had asked me for change, ignoring my muttered “sorry” and chasing me down Sunset until I’d turned. His eyes had gotten big as he’d taken in my face. Then he’d pulled a dollar out of his pocket. And handed it to me.
I started to punch the button that would connect me to Gary. Then I stopped. Should I tell Dave first? I certainly could, now that I’d gotten the Call. He’d want to know. Maybe he’d even want to celebrate. Or maybe I should sneak out of the house, head to the airport, and buy myself a ticket to Hawaii, where he was vacationing, to tell him in person. I knew where he liked to stay, which flights he would have taken, his favorite restaurants on every island. Whether I’d be a good showrunner remained to be seen, but I had been an excellent assistant. The hard part would be getting past Grandma. “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me,” she’d say, and point out that I had already had my heart broken once by a Hollywood writer and that I should endeavor to make new and interesting mistakes rather than repeating the ones I’d made before.
She was right, I thought, and picked up the phone and called Gary. “Good news?” he asked, and I bounced on the bed, smiling as I said, “The best.”
This reading group guide forThe Next Best Thingincludes discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Jennifer Weiner. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Topics & Questions for Discussion 1. What is the significance of swimming in The Next Best Thing? Why do you think it is such a cathartic activity for Ruth?
2. How does Ruth use humor to her advantage? What purpose does it serve her? What did you think about her involvement with Hellsmouth?
3. Throughout the novel, Ruth finds herself in situations where either she is disappointed by people involved in The Next Best Thing, or she knows she will be disappointing others. How does she handle these moments, and should she have handled any of them differently? What does Ruth mean when she says, “I could do it all as long as I felt like my toughness was in the service of something important; that I was protecting the essential heart of my story” (290)?
4. How does the novel depict male-female dynamics in Hollywood? For those people in positions of power, is their gender shown to be part of their success? Do you think that the outcome of The Next Best Thing would have been any different if the show had had a male show-runner, rather than a female?
5. Consider the various interiors described within the novel—Ruth and Grandma’s home in Framingham, the Two Daves’s offices, Little Dave’s home. What does each physical space convey about the individuals who inhabit it?
6. Why is television so sacred to Ruth? How do her beliefs about the power of television impact how she responds to the production process of The Next Best Thing?
7. After announcing that she and Maurice are engaged, Grandma says to Ruth, “I didn’t want to be alone, so I didn’t let you go when I should have . . . I should have pushed you out of the nest when it was time for you to go” (163). Do you agree with Grandma’s assessment, or do you think their living arrangements were more mutually beneficial? How does her relationship with Ruth evolve over the course of the novel?
8. Both Little Dave and Ruth have physical scars which are visibly apparent, but to what extent are they internally scarred as well? How do the ways in which they’ve been wounded shape their perspectives on the world—and how they view each other?
9. Turn to p. 299 and re-read Ruth’s description of the three major themes in literature. Which would you apply to The Next Best Thing? Is the novel more about man versus man—or man versus himself?
10. Why do you think Ruth is devastated by Cady Stratton’s weight loss? When Dave tries to console Ruth, saying, “There are pretty girls who can’t get out of their own way,” Ruth responds: “But nobody identifies with them.” With whom do you agree, and why?
11. How are traditional notions of beauty and sexuality challenged in the novel? Which couples get “happy endings” and what does that happiness look like?
12. Discuss what the words “compromise,” “collaboration,” and “concession” mean to you. Are they simply variations on the same concept, or do you think there are distinct differences between these terms? As a group, can you agree upon an example of each in the novel?
Enhance Your Reading Group
1. The Next Best Thing is Weiner’s tenth novel. If you haven’t already, consider reading Good in Bed, her debut, and discussing it as a group. In The Next Best Thing, how is Weiner revisiting some of the themes she raised in her first book, in new and different ways? How are Ruth and Cannie similar—and how are they different?
2. If you were to create a television show, what would the pilot be about? Which actors and actresses would comprise your dream cast? Share your imaginings with the group.
3. Before she was the heroine of The Next Best Thing, Ruth Saunders appeared in “Swim,” a short story featured in Jennifer Weiner’s bestselling collection The Guy Not Taken, and available as a free e-story online. If you haven’t already, read “Swim” as a group, and then discuss how Ruth has evolved in The Next Best Thing. In particular, what does Ruth learn in “Swim,” and how does she use those lessons in the novel?
A Conversation with Jennifer Weiner
This is your tenth book. How has your writing process changed since your debut, Good in Bed?
Honestly, the process—the sit-in-the-chair-and-write-it—hasn’t changed much. What has changed is I’m now the mother of two—a preschooler and a grade-schooler—and I fit my work around their schedule. I have a LOT of help—a babysitter and an assistant—but I’ve also been known to take my laptop to Little Gym, wave at my daughter through the window as she runs by, then type again, then wave again, then type some more . . . so it’s less about the logistics of storytelling than it is about time management.
You were the co-creator and co-executive producer of the ABC Family show, State of Georgia. How did this experience affect your approach to The Next Best Thing?
State of Georgia made me realize what a charmed and lucky life I’ve led . . . at least professionally.
I’m an Aries (if you believe in astrology) and an oldest child (if you believe in birth order). I set goals for myself. I wanted to work for a big paper by the time I was twenty-five, and was hired by the Philadelphia Inquirer with four months to spare. I wanted a column by the time I was twenty-eight, and got that. I wanted to sell a novel by the time I was thirty, and missed that deadline—but just by six weeks. I didn’t have any hopes for the book becoming a bestseller—I knew how rare that was, and how few writers get to support themselves with their writing—but I wanted to write, as one of my professors told me, the story I was born to tell, the book that I wanted to be on the shelf and couldn’t find. Whether it sold twelve copies, and eight of them were bought by my fellow Weight Watchers, was up to fate, not me. . . . I’d just write the best book I could, and hope for the best . . . and if the best meant I could walk into a bookshelf, point out my book and say, “I wrote that,” I’d be very happy.
So . . . I wrote the best books I could. The first one stayed on the bestseller list for almost a year. The second one became a major motion picture. The third—and every book since—hit the Times list in hardcover. My 2009 book, Best Friends Forever, was a number-one bestseller. I quit my day job and got to stay home and do the thing I loved. I succeeded beyond any dream I’d ever had of success.
So, when Hollywood came calling, I thought, Of course! This will be great! A chance to learn new skills, to have a new job! Best of all, a chance to tell a story about a big girl who gets her happy ending, the great clothes and guys and lines without having to get skinny! A girl who changes the world, instead of letting the world change her! A girl who can be a beacon, shining for all the girls who look more like Melissa McCarthy than Miley Cyrus!
ABC Family felt like the perfect place to do it (although it was tough, explaining to my Nanna the difference between ABC and ABC Family, which is their cable outlet). I have daughters, and I wanted to tell those stories in a place where young girls would see them . . . where they could turn on the set and see someone who looked like them being the star of the show. I had no idea that the woman the network would cast didn’t want to be “that girl” any more, and would fight us every step of the way about wearing the padding it took to get her to look even remotely non–model-sized.
I never imagined that I’d fail, and fail so spectacularly . . . that I’d want to do the story of a plus-size woman trying to make it on Broadway with an unknown actress, and that the network would want to do it with a name-brand star . . . who’d lost thirty pounds since the last time she’d been on TV. I didn’t know they’d insist on a laugh track, or hand-pick our protagonist’s co-star, or want the kind of broad physical humor in each episode that I was—how to put this?—not a fan of.
State of Georgia lasted nine episodes, and I’m proud of the writing in every single one of them. Each episode has a joke, or a moment, or a scene, or a bit of dialogue, that I’m proud of . . . but it got canceled anyhow. And I learned that it got canceled via the Internet, as opposed to anyone from the network calling to tell me. It was awful. But the thing about failure is this: if it doesn’t kill you, it teaches you things. It makes you humble. It reminds you that not everything you touch turns to gold. And, if there’s ever a next time for me and television, maybe there will be a happier ending. Or not. One of the things I learned about Hollywood is that so much of what happens out there depends on luck, and timing.
So, for now, I’m content to write books that star the kind of characters you don’t see on TV—the girls who wear double-digit sizes, who are more beloved for their wit than their pretty faces, who get the guy, and save the day, because they’re funny and smart, not pretty. And if I have another book made into a movie, or another TV show picked up? I’ll hope for the best . . . but expect the worst.
Ruth first appeared in your writing as the protagonist of “Swim,” a short story you included in The Guy Not Taken. What was it like for you to revisit this character? What drew you back to her?
I always like to write about women at a moment of change or crisis in their lives—that moment that’s full of both possibility and peril, where every choice you make is going to have lifelong resonance. Ruth is twenty-eight, single, in love with a man she believes has no interest in her other than a professional one, and a face that she’s ashamed of. She’s so broken, and so brave. She uses her sarcasm as a shield, but instead, she’s such a marshmallow, and she just wants to be loved. Not all of my characters stick with me when the story or the novel’s done, but Ruth did. I thought about what happened to her, and I wanted to tel her story more completely, and give her a happy ending.
The Next Best Thing is your first novel to take place almost entirely in Los Angeles. How does it compare, as a setting, to the Northeastern cities you have written about?
I wish I had something super-original to say, but all the clichés about LA are true: the weather’s gorgeous, the traffic’s a nightmare, there’s a lot of Botox and implants and worrying about aging and it’s not necessarily the best place to raise daughters. Not all of it was bad—I went out there with my children and my sister and my mom, and we rented a big house in Los Feliz with a pool and a hot tub and an orchard with lemon and plum and apricot and avocado trees. I loved the way the air smelled, and that it was never humid (my hair never looked better!). I hated the car culture, and how rare it was to see people walk anywhere, and the tiny parking spots in the Whole Foods parking lot, and how, sometimes in the pickup lane at my three-year-old’s playschool, there would be paparazzi, because a famous comedian’s daughter went there, too. Also, I once ate a hemp bagel. I wasn’t sure I’d be allowed back on the east coast after that. I think, deep down, I knew that Hollywood was not going to be my forever place. But I’m a swimmer, and I loved writing about characters who could swim all the time!
In the popular imagination, Hollywood is defined by beautiful people. However, you have chosen two physically “imperfect” people as your protagonists. Why was this important to you? How did this change the way you told your story?
I’m always interested in ugly ducklings, men and women. Beautiful people have so many advantages. People make assumptions about them—that they’re good, that they’re smart, that they’re honest—just because of how they look . . . and that’s more true than anyplace in Hollywood. One of the prettiest women I met out there was sweet as pie to my face when the show was on the air . . . and as nasty to me as you could believe on social media once the show was canceled and I couldn’t do anything to help her anymore (I don’t think she knows about my brother the film producer. Heh). I guess I just think that “imperfect” people have to work harder to get what comes more easily to their beautiful friends and siblings and colleagues . . . and, as a writer, I’m interested in people who have to work harder to get what they want. It gives me more of a story to tell. (For example, I am currently obsessed with broken, brilliant Tyrion Lannister in the Game of Thrones books)
Swimming serves as an escape for Ruth. Is there an activity that has the same effect for you?
Anything physical, really, where there’s a rhythm to the strokes or the strides or the turns of the wheels. I swim, I bike, I run, I do sprint-distance triathlons (very, very slowly), and I think when I move . . . so even if it looks like I’m slacking by just walking the dog or whatever, the truth is, I’m working. Swear to God!
The Golden Girls is Ruth’s favorite television growing up, and it has a formative impact on her. What was your favorite show as a child, and did it affect you in the same way? What do you think television offers, as a storytelling medium, that books and movies do not?
Ha. Okay, here’s the sad-but-true part: I wasn’t allowed to watch TV until I was in college. My parents—a child psychiatrist and a teacher—believed that television was a Bad Influence, and we could only watch half an hour of PBS and the occasional Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. The irony is, of course, I write books and TV shows, and had a book made into a movie, one of my brothers is a film producer, the other is an entertainment lawyer, and my sister is an actress who makes videos for places like Funny or Die. In lieu of TV, we were all forced to be funny around the dinner table, and it’s a skill that I think has served each of us well.
In terms of of what TV has to offer, it’s very stripped down. No interior monologues (unless you do them in voiceover—ugh). No description. Just dialogue and action and no need to describe the room because it’s right there. Lucky for me, I love writing dialogue and hate writing description, and I like a story where things move along briskly, so writing scripts wasn’t that hard a transition.
Unlike your recent novels, which have been narrated from multiple points of view, The Next Best Thing is told from Ruth’s perspective only. What was it like for you to return to single narration? Did it change the way you approached Ruth—or the plot?
With this book, having lived through the failure of Georgia, I wanted to go back to basics: a flawed yet lovable girl, a battle she’d either win or lose, a vivid cast of supporting characters, a new world to explore. Where Then Came You was very much an issue-of-the-times book, with surrogacy and fertility and how money influences the options women have, and Fly Away Home was very topical—cheating politicians! Wives standing by their men! Daughters’s lives thrown into turmoil!—The Next Best Thing was a simpler story, like Good in Bed or Best Friends Forever, with a great, broken, admirable character at its heart. I wanted to go back to my wheelhouse, to give my readers, old and new, another character to love the way they loved Cannie in Good in Bed and Addie in Best Friends Forever . . . and I hope I did!
You are a reality television buff, and as many of your fans know, you live-tweet The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. How do you think reality television has affected pop culture on the whole?
I think the generation behind mine really came of age in the Time of Oprah, where it didn’t really happen unless someone was watching, and where physical imperfection is less acceptable than ever. Hence shows like The Bachelor, which are less about finding love than they are about attaining a sinecure on another show—Good Morning America, Dancing with the Stars, whatever. It was fun to write a character like Ruth who, because of her insecurities, is terrified of even having her elbow accidentally appearing on screen . . . and who ends up having to face her fears, go on camera, and say, “This is the show that I wanted to do. Here’s how it was supposed to be. Here’s who it was supposed to be for.”
When her show is first picked up, Little Dave tells Ruth to enjoy it, because, “It’s as good as it’s going to get.” What advice would you give young writers who hope to work in television?
I’d tell them to know that there will be compromises. Because there’s a lot of money at stake, there will, necessarily, be a lot of cooks in the kitchen . . . and, in many ways, it’s an industry driven by fear. Nobody wants a show to go down, nobody wants to lose her job, and so you go with what’s worked before (in the case of ABC Family, which aired Georgia, that meant name-brand stars: you loved them in the 1990s, you’ll love them now!) Just know what’s coming; pick your battles, fight them hard, accept defeat gracefully, learn all you can . . . and then maybe try to get a deal with a cable outlet that doesn’t have to answer to advertisers, and could stand to learn that there are worlds outside of Brooklyn, and women who live there, and struggle, and sometimes even win.
The Next Best Thing 3.2 out of 5based on
More than 1 year ago
I have read all of Jennifer Weiner's novels. The Next Best Thing was not worth the read. The author repeated exact lines and characters from other novels she has written. It was like a re-read. In this novel, I felt that the author "pushed the envelope to the edge" with soft core pornography, which was not in previous reads. Not worth the money or the wait!!! Jennifer seems to be recycling.
More than 1 year ago
I've read all Jennifer Weiner's books and this is my least favorite. In her other books, the main character has been jewish and overweight. In this book, substitute disfigured face for overweight. It did go into quite a bit of detail about how the TV industry works, how the writers vision is totally turned around by network execs, and the frustration it brings to the writers. I was looking forward to this book but it was disappointing to me.
More than 1 year ago
Ruthie has her own body image issues, owing to a horrific childhood car crash that left her orphaned and scarred in more ways than one. Fortunately, Ruthie was raised by a loving grandmother that saw her through years of painful reconstructive surgeries, during which the two of them found comfort in television shows like The Golden Girls. Like most Wiener novels, there's a delectable romantic subplot. Jennifer Weiner writes protagonists you want to be friends with, and perfectly imperfect men you could absolutely fall in love with. Along the way, she pokes plenty of fun at Hollywood, and several well-known and loosely-veiled celebrities. Personally, as a childless reader, I always enjoy the novels that DON'T deal with motherhood the most, and The Next Best Thing was a big hit with me. The Hollywood fantasy of it all harkened back to her blockbuster debut, Good in Bed. And the ending was just perfect! I think this latest novel is one of Jennifer Weiner's very best.
More than 1 year ago
I am Jennifer Weiners biggest fan- sadly NOT a fan of this book. The best thing about her books is her characters and sadly this book did not have any characters you wanted to invest in. They were all so flat. I do not recommend this book- skip it and hope her next book is better.
More than 1 year ago
This is the worst book by Ms Weiner that I've read. I've enjoyed all her books but "the next best thing" was almost unreadable. I did finish it though because once I start a book I give it a full try. A real dissapointment!
More than 1 year ago
After reading "Swim," I had to know the whole story. I really enjoyed this book. Great characters and plot. I can't wait to read what comes next.
More than 1 year ago
It's clear that this book is at least partially autobiographical - Jennifer Weiner created, wrote & executive produced the ABC Family show State of Georgia. It featured Georgia, a young aspiring actress & her oversexed great aunt Honey who raised her after Georgia's mother died. Georgia was played by Raven Simone, who underwent a huge weight loss just prior to the show's airing. I enjoyed TNBT a lot more after this realization, but other than that not Weiner's best work.
More than 1 year ago
Very interesting and entertaining. Very good book. finished it very quickly
More than 1 year ago
More than 1 year ago
What has happened to this author? This book had none of the wit of her first. It was hard to care for the heroine; she mostly seemed selfish and too naive. While I admit the glimpse into the world of TV and shows was interesting, the story and characters felt flat. I could not get past the fact that her sitcom would get greenlit. It seemed so corny and unoriginal. Not even good as a light summer read.
More than 1 year ago
A sitcom showrunner finds the road to her first series launch much rockier than expected. When Ruth Saunders gets "the call" from the network telling her that her original series, The Next Best Thing, is a go, at first she is incredulous. Although she's served her time in a writers' room, she never expected to sell her autobiographical concept about a young woman, Daphne, and her grandmother, Nanna Trudy, who move to Miami to seek their fortunes. Ruth moved to Hollywood with her grandmother, Rae, and they've both enjoyed success, Ruth as a comedy writer and Rae as an extra. Rae raised Ruth from toddlerhood after a car crash killed her parents and disfigured Ruth. (Even after multiple surgeries, one side of Ruth's face is badly scarred.) After Ruth is hired as an assistant to two writer-producers, Big Dave and Little Dave, they help her develop and pitch her own show. I enjoyed the first part with the grandmother as humorous; however, as the book moves on, not a lot of substance and a let down from Weiner's previous books. "
More than 1 year ago
More than 1 year ago
This book was not worth the time and pain it caused me. The quality of writing is something I may have expected from a seventh grader with decent grades. The plot was horrendous like the author didn't even know where she wanted it to go. This is one of the worst books I have read in a while. I don't know how it got published in the first place.
More than 1 year ago
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More than 1 year ago
I absolutely LOVED this book. I listened to the audio recording because I commute to work and the voice actor is amazing. She makes everything funnier and more real. It's a huge triumph that Jennifer Weiner includes a character who uses a wheelchair and makes it a minor detail of the story. He's handsome, funny, successful, rich, has a beautiful home and, of yeah, he uses a wheelchair. He's not inspirational or overcoming anything. He's a "normal" guy (whatever that means). I was in a car accident in 1982 and have used a wheelchair ever since--this is probably why this resonated with me so much. If you're going to read it--choose the audio book!
More than 1 year ago
Not my fave jennifer weiner but fun quick read
More than 1 year ago
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More than 1 year ago
Loved it! Never wanted to put it down. So fun, hopeful and uplifting!
More than 1 year ago
I read it and then deleted it my library. I have never done that before. I thought it was terribly written. It took me forever to get through it because I was bored
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