Early on in her memoir, Hungry Heart: Adventures in Life, Love, and Writing, bestselling novelist Jennifer Weiner recounts the moment she learns how to read at the tender age of 4. “At first, the words looked like cuneiform, random slashes and squiggles. I took a deep breath. There was a story in there, I just had to figure out how to get to it,” she writes. After much straining to sound out each letter, each syllable, Weiner’s literacy awakens. “My imaginary life, the one that sometimes felt more real to me than the real world, had finally begun.”
With this newfound skill, she proceeds to devour everything from the Ramona and Encyclopedia Brown books, to those by Judith Krantz and Erica Jong’s How to Save Your Own Life. “I read voraciously, indiscriminately, gulping down anything that held my interest,” Weiner explains.
Her ferocious love of language would lead her to declare, at age 6, that she wanted to be a writer when she grew up. Later, she penned a play performed by the entire sixth grade. Reading and writing would partially insulate Weiner from years of merciless torment from other kids about her weight and faith in her hometown of Simsbury, Connecticut, a suburb of Hartford.
“You’re Jewish,” she recalls an elementary school classmate telling her. “You killed Jesus.”
“It would be years and years before I could tell about it,” Weiner writes, “before I could take the raw material of all that hurt and embarrassment and spin it into fiction, but even at five or six or seven, I was already taking steps in the right direction.”
It is this eloquent delivery of vulnerability that epitomizes Hungry Heart—out this week—as well as Weiner’s 12 works of fiction, beginning with Cannie Shapiro, the sharp-witted protagonist in her debut novel, Good in Bed. Weiner, who considers Nora Ephron one of her biggest influences, evokes an Ephronian kind of raw humor, cynicism, commiseration, and straight talk in Hungry Heart: “You fall, you get hurt, you get up again.”
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Some of the strongest chapters in Hungry Heart focus on Weiner’s family members. In “Renaissance Fran,” Weiner recounts the coming out of her mother, Fran, at age 54, and the trip the family takes down to Florida during Passover so Fran can come out to her own mother, Weiner’s scene-stealing, octogenarian, Gefilte fish-cooking grandmother, “Nanna.” “Nanna sighed … and then, glaring at our mother, she unscrewed her lips long enough to deliver a line that would live forever in Weiner family infamy. ‘Frances was always difficult!’ she spat.”
Initially, Weiner and her siblings receive the news of Fran’s newly declared identity with biting sarcasm. Weiner comes to regret this later, when she more deeply contemplates the life her mother may have missed out on in the decades before Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled marriage between two people of the same sex legal under the 14th Amendment. “Would she have settled down with a lady and had babies via DIY artificial insemination? Would she have ever been with men at all, or would it have just been women, or would it have been both?” Weiner asks.
The most affecting chapter recalls Weiner’s father’s sudden death (which Weiner would eventually learn was related to a drug addiction), years after he’d abandoned the family when she was still in high school. This is Weiner’s writing at its finest, grittiest, most searing. As she peels back each layer of her father’s lies, she’s forced to confront his demons, as well as her own pain of rejection buried deep within herself. “I felt like a cape of ice was falling, from my neck to my shoulders to my legs, trapping me, freezing me,” she writes. “The words rattled around in my head, like Ping-Pong balls in the lottery drawing’s hopper. Heroin. Crack. My father? My father who’d read to me from the Aeneid and Shakespeare, who’d once made me feel so special, so smart, so loved?”
Weiner writes with equal sensitivity about a miscarriage she has at age 45—her chance to have a child with Bill, who would become her second husband. “I am mourning the loss of the possibility, the non-winning ticket; the door I won’t get to unlock, the dream that didn’t come true.”
Life as an underdog is a dominant theme in Hungry Heart. After a six-week trip to Israel the summer before her junior year in high school, where she was nicknamed “Fat Jennifer,” Weiner realizes that nothing—not Tretorn shoes, nor Benetton sweaters—will earn her acceptance from her peers. So she quits striving for it. “I was done trying to be anyone except who I was, and if nobody liked me, if I didn’t find my people until college or graduate school or ever, well, then, I’d manage.”
Weiner more than manages. In the years following her graduation from Princeton (where she studied English under Joyce Carol Oates and Toni Morrison), she finds tremendous professional and personal success. She writes columns for the Philadelphia Inquirer, marries, and, soon after her 30th birthday, sells her first novel, Good in Bed, in a two-book deal for half a million dollars. In Her Shoes, her sophomore effort, is made into a major motion picture. Ten more adult fiction books follow, as well as a contributing writer gig at the New York Times. Just last month she released her first middle-grade book in a trilogy, The Littlest Bigfoot.
Despite her immense popularity, Weiner still seems plagued by insecurity. (On Facebook, in now-deleted posts, she recently complained about the fact that Oprah didn’t pick Hungry Heart for her Book Club.) Weiner herself seems perplexed by this insatiable need for affirmation. “I’ve spent 15 years insisting that books like mine deserve a place on the shelf, and maybe I don’t entirely believe it myself,” she stated in a June op-ed for the New York Times. “Why else was I so willing to give credence to the naysayers and have trouble hearing the readers who said my books gave them comfort, kept them entertained, made them feel less alone?”
The chapter “Twitter, Reconsidered,” catalogs Weiner’s viral tweets with lengthy annotations in what feels like unnecessary filler in a 400-page memoir. Toward the end, though, she finally divulges the details of the pink elephant in the room—her infamous rivalry with novelist Jonathan Franzen, who rocketed to fame when he disparaged Oprah’s invitation to appear on her Book Club for his third novel, The Corrections, causing her to withdraw her invitation for him to appear on her show. After the 2010 publication of his fourth novel, Freedom, Franzen’s portrait graced the cover of Time magazine (with the caption “Great American Novelist”), and received significant attention in the New York Times and its ilk.
Weiner’s beef with the literary establishment’s love fest over Franzen (aka #Franzenfreude) went well beyond the author himself. She accused the New York Times of reviewing fewer women-authored popular women’s fiction or “chick lit” books like hers, than male-authored commercial fiction by authors like Dan Brown or Lee Child. Slate looked into Weiner’s claim, and found that in a two-year period (June 2008 to August 2010), 62 percent of the books reviewed by the New York Times were written by men, and only 38 percent were written by women.
Around this same time, VIDA Women in Literary Arts, a nonprofit organization, began examining gender disparity in bylines at major publications. Year after year, it has found that men are often published more frequently than women, though some outlets are making progress toward equality. Weiner became a member of VIDA’s advisory board last month.
Though she has also advocated (under the hashtag #ColorMyShelf) for diversity in children’s literature, she’s been quieter when it comes to the industry’s diversity problem in adult fiction, a genre where she holds significant prominence and power. For all of her pointed criticism about sexism, and her diatribes against individual writers like Franzen, Weiner’s trademark blunt, forthright analysis regarding the institutional barriers facing writers of color, LGBTQ writers, and writers with disabilities is absent from Hungry Heart.
One hopes a more intersectional expression of feminism from Weiner is forthcoming. For if there is anything to take away from Hungry Heart, it’s Weiner’s persistence and willingness to stick her neck out for causes she believes in. “I’ve lived through a divorce and a miscarriage,” she writes. “I’ve seen my books become successful in a way few books do. I’ve taken stands and taken heat, and—I hope—seen the world change, a little bit, because I spoke up.”