Reviewed by Laura Godfrey
Jennifer Weiner’s latest is a welcome addition to her growing collection of best-selling novels—especially for readers with an interest in the TV industry. The Next Best Thing tells the story of 28-year-old Ruth Saunders, a determined young woman who moved from her childhood home in Massachusetts to the bustling city of L.A. to chase her dream of producing a sitcom based on her own life. As if making it in L.A. weren’t hard enough, Ruth has had more obstacles than most to deal with: as a child, she was in a car accident that killed both her parents and left her face badly scarred. As a result, Ruth was raised by her loving grandma, Rachel, and the two take off for L.A. together.
Among all the model-esque actresses in L.A., Ruth often feels pangs of insecurity, but she doesn’t let this rule her life—and after time spent in one TV show’s writers’ room, she finally gets the call she’s been waiting for: she’s going to run her own show. But the heartbreaks Ruth soon experiences don’t just stem from her love life—she also has to deal with network executives who don’t understand her vision, bratty actresses who don’t fit casting types at all, and time constraints that threaten to make everything fall apart.
Admittedly, Ruth’s character isn’t always sympathetic—she truly can have a bit of a mean streak herself—but she is nonetheless an underdog you can’t help but root for. Ruth wants nothing more than to create a show about her life with her grandmother, and the uncertain journey to get there proves that even when things don’t turn out how you expected, you can learn a lot along the way.
The idea of struggling to create a meaningful TV show—one with a heroine young girls can relate to—is actually based on Weiner’s real-life experience running the short-lived 2011 ABC sitcom State of Georgia, starring Raven-Symoné. There are quite a few parallels between Weiner’s show and Ruth’s show, including the issue of a leading lady who was meant to be plus-sized, but suddenly lost a lot of weight before filming began. As TVGuide.com reported about State of Georgia last year:
“[Weiner] says she hit the jackpot with Raven-Symoné, but had to re-jigger the character after Raven, who was the plus-sized female with a knack for physical comedy she was looking for, lost 30 pounds.
‘Originally it was written for a plus-sized girl and that was one of the important struggles I imagined Georgia dealing with,’ Weiner tells TVGuide.com.”
That familiarity with the TV industry, the writers’ rooms, and the entire production process is evident in Weiner’s novel, and being taken through the ups and downs of that process is a delight. Despite a few cringe-worthy sitcom jokes, the heart of this book is the close relationship between Ruth and her grandmother, an unusual pairing built over years of support and a mutual love of The Golden Girls. In The Next Best Thing, Weiner displays her trademark wit in another underdog story, giving a good name to the too-often-dismissed chick lit genre.
(Simon & Schuster / 400 pgs. / July 2012 / $29.99 in hardcover)
For a reading group guide, visit Simon & Schuster’s website.