By Leah R. Harrison
Bringing her book count to an even dozen, New York Times best-selling author Jennifer Weiner is releasing “Who Do You Love” two days before returning to Atlanta on Thursday, Aug. 13, for a Page From the Book Festival event at the Marcus Jewish Community Center.
The wildly popular fiction writer will discuss her new novel about chance meetings, differences that separate, ties that bind, and love that endures.
Weiner grew up in a small town outside Hartford, Conn. She was one of the few Jewish students in her high school. Her Reform synagogue served four towns, so “it also had to make a lot of the Conservative people happy,” Weiner said.
She had a bat mitzvah, was confirmed, and went to Israel at age 15. “Being in the minority, being such a minority, … it gave me a very strong sense of my identity, and that it was different, but different was OK,” she said.
During the 10 years before the 2001 debut of her first novel, the English major and Princeton graduate was a newspaper reporter. She credits that time for giving her a strong education in how to tell a story.
Since then, the women’s fiction writer’s fan base has grown exponentially, bringing her to over 9 million copies in print in 36 countries. Her second novel, “In Her Shoes,” was made into a motion picture directed by Curtis Hansen and starring Cameron Diaz and Shirley MacLaine.
On a visit in 2008, Weiner charmed her audience at a Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta Women’s Philanthropy event while promoting her sixth novel, “Certain Girls.”
In a recent phone interview, she spoke about her work and maturation as a writer, how her Jewish roots and ethics inform her writing and character development, and emerging themes in her new novel.
“Who Do You Love” begins with an accidental encounter between two 8-year-olds in a hospital emergency room: Rachel Blum, a Jewish girl with a congenital heart defect, born to two affluent, protective and adoring parents; and Andy Landis, the son of a busy and preoccupied single mom struggling to make ends meet.
Because they come from such different backgrounds, the two leave lasting impressions on each other. The story follows them through the twists and turns of their lives over the next 30 years. It tells of the similarities and differences between Rachel and Andy, the situations that later bring them together (including a synagogue youth service trip to build a home in Atlanta), and the dynamics that come to drive them apart.
According to the author, the book “is a romance, it’s a love story, but I think it’s also very much a story about figuring out where you’re supposed to be in the world and what you’re supposed to do there.”
Weiner said her central characters are often, if not always, Jewish women. She spoke of those characters being on journeys to reach their intended places.
“I think there’s always the sense of tikkun olam, which I talk about specifically in this book, about healing the broken world, like ‘OK, what are we here for?’ ” she said. “Rachel and Andy both have to answer that question.”
She said her Jewish values naturally affect her writing and her characters.
“I think it’s part of who I am, and it comes through in the books. It informs my life, and it necessarily informs my writing,” Weiner said. “Sometimes it’s much more explicit than others. Rachel is a very explicitly Jewish character. … She has a bat mitzvah. She has a seder. And in both of those cases … there are things that come through that are, that speak to her Jewish values. And that’s always there in my books, I think.”
The Jewish aspects of Weiner’s characters aren’t forced but are woven into the story. “I think people really like that about my books because I think for Jewish readers it’s very familiar,” she said, “and it’s very comfortable, and I also think that for some readers … I’ve been like Jewish 101.”
Of her readers who are not Jewish, Weiner said: “I think they like reading about it. I think it gives them a taste of a culture that maybe they don’t know a lot about, and it’s sort of an interesting facet of the books. You know, they’re learning something.”
Race is another issue that Weiner artfully broaches. The son of a mixed marriage, the light-skinned Andy grows up without a true sense of belonging.
Although it is a factor that greatly influences his adolescence and hovers at the back of the reader’s consciousness, the author rarely makes reference to race. She is thoughtful and careful with her physical descriptions, often omitting skin color. Weiner treats quality of character as much more of an issue than race. It is a nonfactor in Rachel’s relationship with Andy, and it becomes the same to the reader.
As in real life, Weiner’s characters are messy and imperfect, yet they develop. They mature emotionally and chronologically during Weiner’s intentional journey. They have redeeming qualities and formidable inner strength, enabling them to triumph over the speed bumps that life throws in their way.
Quite possibly a key to her success, Weiner confessed to having a penchant for happy endings. She said, “As a reader, I like … being able to put a book down, even if it’s not all tied up perfectly in a neat little bow, even if not everybody’s happy, at least knowing that things have ended, that there’s a completion that you never really seem to get in real life, which just keeps sort of bumbling on forward.”
Her thoughtful, comfortable writing style and the hope of that happy ending keep Weiner’s fans coming back for more.
Who: Jennifer Weiner
What: Conversation with CNN correspondent Holly Firfer about the novel “Who Do You Love,” followed by a book signing
Where: Marcus JCC, 5342 Tilly Mill Road, Dunwoody
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 13
Tickets: $24 for JCC members, $29 for nonmembers (includes a first-edition copy of the book and a glass of wine); 678-812-4002 or atlantajcc.org/bookfestival