I don’t watch Girls because I can’t afford HBO, so instead I sometimes eavesdrop on the youngs while I’m on the train.
Over the weekend I took Metronorth from Grand Central to the Berkshires. Two dark-haired girls sat across from me. One had her hair in a ponytail. The other wore shorts and a pair of moccasins, no socks.
The one with the ponytail did most of the talking. She said most of the boys at her college in New York were either gay or in relationships. Due to the extreme straight single guy shortage, the ones that existed had women falling all over them. “But I’m not going to go up to somebody and be like, ‘Hey, I like you, I want you to be my boyfriend,’” she said, embarrassed.
She sort of liked one guy who was a jerk but knew he was a jerk (That is the worst kind, I wanted to break in). He was funny (no he wasn’t), and sometimes she’d go over to his place with friends. But he didn’t want a girlfriend. He was still hot, though, and she would have hooked up with him if he didn’t have so little respect for women (high five for holding out).
She talked about how open she was with people, which certainly seemed true. Making friends was sometimes hard for her, because she let everyone know what she was thinking about and most of the people she met were suppressing things.
The girl in moccasins mostly listened. She did such a perfect job of it—laughing at all the right times, nodding, asking questions—that I wondered if she was secretly an expert therapist disguising herself as a nineteen-year-old. The only time she said anything revealing about herself was when her friend told a story about a girl who’d behaved rudely to a guy at a party.
“I mean, if that was you,” the first girl said, “you wouldn’t have blown him off, right?”
“I don’t talk to boys,” said the girl in moccasins, tilting her head.
“Right, but you at least would have said hello?”
I was so intrigued. How interesting that this cool, empathetic girl didn’t talk to boys! From the way she said it, and her friend’s casual response, it was clear that this was common knowledge, based on firm but mysterious (to me) principles.
Then they talked about how scared they were about turning twenty, which was hilarious. But I remember what it was like to worry that twenty was old. I had a friend in college who freaked out because she thought she was getting crowsfeet.
We start panicking about aging early in America, although plenty of twenty-somethings don’t grow up till much later. Beset with student loan debt, a spartan job market, and the usual quarter-life crises, many recent and not-so-recent college graduates find themselves far off from the traditional trappings of adulthood. Instead, impermanence reigns in the form of unpaid internships, murky romances, grad school programs that are lonelier and harder than college but involve just as much heavy drinking, and a revolving door of friends moving to and from various cities. Perhaps the most transitional state of all is to live at home with your parents, both because of the twisted back-in-time Peggy Sue Got Married quality of it—right nightstand, right dishes, wrong you—and because of how terrifying it is to think that you might get stuck there.
That’s the nebulous realm explored in Leigh Stein’s excellent new novel The Fallback Plan. Esther, a newly minted Northwestern grad with a case of self-diagnosed sentimental sadness, moves back in with her parents the summer after graduation. Over the course of the novel, Esther writes a Narnia-inspired screenplay about pandas, sleeps with one wrong guy and has an unconsummated affair with another, and daydreams about being diagnosed with a chronic illness that would relieve her of the responsibility of figuring out what to do with her life. Most importantly, Esther starts babysitting for a four-year-old named May who likes to pretend that she’s a baby dinosaur and prefaces her questions by asking, “Can I tell you something?” (Needless to say, May is amazing.)
May and her parents are struggling in the aftermath of her infant sister Annika’s sudden death. Thrown into the midst of their grief, Esther develops intimate and strange relationships with Amy, a nervous, desperate artist, and Nate, who keeps his distance from his wife and wants to score pot off the babysitter. But the central relationship in the novel is between Esther and May. By learning how to take care of someone else, Esther starts to grow up.
Stein captures Esther’s wry, sensitive voice perfectly. Her cynical asides reveal real fear about the future that awaits her. “Apparently,” Esther realizes, “no one ever grew up to be noble and brave and wise. Apparently, this was just a lie perpetuated by children’s book authors. Thanks, Frances Hodgson Burnett! High five, Louisa May Alcott! Now, at twenty two, I finally knew the truth.”
But Esther was a theater major: part of her still believes in magic and transformation. When a thunderstorm cuts off power at May’s house, she and her young charge light candles to send good wishes to all the people they can think of. Esther’s imagination also allows her to fantasize about ending up with Jack—a jerk who knows he’s a jerk, a beautiful and mean meathead, Tim Riggins without the soul.
While Esther is an expert storyteller, harder truths keep impeding on her inventions. When the power goes on again after the storm, she’s disappointed to see how her magic disappears without the dark. “Our cathedral had been destroyed,” she says, “and our dedications were now just pools of melted wax.”
The Fallback Plan has gotten deservedly warm critical praise, but I’ve been surprised by some critics’ responses to Esther. A mostly positive review in The Millions praised Stein for creating an “unlikable protagonist,” calling Esther “shiftless and entitled.”
This assessment of Esther is mind-boggling to me, as bizarre as a witch who wants to keep the world from celebrating Hanukkah. Esther’s a bit shiftless, sure, but that won’t last forever. She’s only just graduated from school, and we also learn that she’s recovering from a serious bout with mental illness just a few months before. And while Esther’s entitled in the way plenty of young adults with middle-class backgrounds and college educations are, it’s not as if she’s playing tennis with the Winklevoss twins. She’s paying her parents rent and saving up some money by babysitting for ten dollars a hour. And if she occasionally tells herself that she deserves bigger and better things—a job assisting Sofia Coppola, for example—I’d like to find a single idealistic young adult who hasn’t had those thoughts. Of course a middle-class upbringing, a parental safety net, and a college degree are all privileged things to have, and they can protect people from many problems. But loneliness and self-loathing are not among them.
The root of negative reactions to Esther may be what Alizah Salario admits in her Rumpus review: “The truth is, I found Esther cringe-inducing because she reminded me so much of myself.” Esther’s flaws are relatable, which is what makes her uniquely provocative. Balancing out her compassion, perceptiveness, and swift humor are insecurity, self-pity, and selfishness. She makes a number of questionable-to-bad decisions, but who on earth wants to read a book about a protagonist who acts sensibly the whole way through? “After Viola graduated from college with a practical double major in marketing and communications, she accepted a well-paying job at an advertising agency. She worked hard and moved up the ladder quickly, ran a half-marathon, became engaged to her longtime boyfriend, got a Goldendoodle, and lived happily ever after.” That may be a nice way to live, but I don’t want to spend one more second reading about it, and neither does anyone else. Stories are trouble, and vice versa.
As I said, I don’t watch Girls, so anything I say about the show is going to be like a ring around Saturn as opposed to the actual planet. (???) But. Along with reasonable and important critiques about the show’s representations of race and class and privilege, I think some of the Girls backlash is about people who are annoyed that a young girl deemed her own basically ordinary thoughts and experiences worthy of a TV show. Probably these are the same people who pitched fits about the proliferation of memoirs a couple years ago, since nobody should ever be allowed to write about their lives unless they are officially Important or Unusual, like Henry Kissinger or the first vegetarian robot cat.
Esther is important enough to have her own story simply because she’s Esther. She’s not the kind of protagonist who’s found in the childhood tales she devours at home, “books in which the heroines were orphans or runaways or Holocaust martyrs,” whom she loves because “[. . .] even though they faced insurmountable obstacles, their objectives were always clear.” Edging into adulthood, Esther stays lost, without a fortuitous mission to lend her direction. Instead, she observes the way Amy gulps white wine at a party “like a teenager who knows the cops might come any second.” She entertains herself by crawling toward her purse instead of walking, teaches May what a starfish is, learns the sound of snow, refuses to high five Jack for his misogynistic joke. Little by little, she feels her way toward what’s next.
Reading about Esther is a lot like listening to those girls on the train—nostalgic and funny and heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful. The kids are really pretty much more or less all right. I loved how honest those two train girls were with each other, and how unconcerned they seemed to be about whether the things they said and did had been said and done by other young people like them a million times before. Once you stop worrying about whether or not you’re special, you get freed up. It’s much cooler, and more relaxing.
When the train finally got to the Berkshires, the first girl – the talker – stood and unfolded herself like an accordion. I hadn’t been able to tell when she was sitting down, but she was at least six feet tall. She looked like a warrior, or a queen. I glanced around at the other passengers and wondered who else had been listening to her while she unburdened herself on the train, if they’d sympathized or rolled their eyes or blushed imagining themselves back at her age. If they’d guessed at the heights she was made of.