I have a foolproof method of determining if I’ve found a 5-heart book. When I feel that I absolutely must read the last 20 pages in total silence without even the slightest interruption, that’s a clear sign we’re in Keeper Territory; the book has me thoroughly involved and I want to finish it in peace to get the full effect of its conclusion. Let me tell you, I was glaring daggers at my noisy family as I tried to finish In Her Shoes, the sophomore effort from former newspaper columnist Jennifer Weiner. I finally had to retreat to my bedroom, with door locked, for those precious final pages, and I wasn’t disappointed. After only two novels, it’s clear that this author is here to stay.
The “two very different sisters” plot has been done before, but somehow Weiner makes it fresh as she draws the reader into the story about her heroines, Rose and Maggie Feller. Rose is the smart but plain caretaker who breezed through college and law school. Maggie is the sexy, irresponsible one who sleeps around and can’t hold a job for longer than a few weeks. After Maggie is evicted from her latest low-rent dive, she moves into Rose’s small Philadelphia apartment. Maggie encourages Rose to loosen up and take more interest in her appearance, while Rose pushes Maggie to look past her fantasies of becoming an MTV personality and find a steady job. Though they bond together in their hatred of their “stepmonster” Sydelle and the few shared memories of their manic-depressive mother who died when they were young, they co-exist uneasily.
Then their truce is shattered by a cruel betrayal. Estranged with little hope of reconciliation, the two sisters embark upon separate journeys of self-discovery. When a surprise third party enters the picture, the possibility of reconciliation emerges. But it will take a deeper understanding of the past, some tough decisions, and time spent walking in each other’s shoes before the sisters are brought back together for good.
Both Rose and Maggie are complex, realistic characters. Sometimes you want to cry for them, sometimes you want to smack them and sometimes you want to do both at the same time. Rose’s story is more familiar. Like any Plain Jane/Ugly Duckling, she has her heart broken but finds true love once she accepts herself and realizes that working in a Philadelphia law firm may not be her only career option. She is not unlike Weiner’s heroine from her debut novel, Good in Bed (and in fact Cannie Shapiro makes a totally unnecessary cameo appearance). I know Rose - I’ve been Rose - and I suspect many of the book’s readers can relate to her.
Maggie, however, makes the book special. Diagnosed with learning disabilities but rarely given the special attention she needed, Maggie’s insecurities and grief over losing her mother manifest themselves in outrageous, promiscuous behavior. She’s self-centered and difficult to love but Weiner gives her just enough vulnerability that you can forgive her almost anything. The adventures she endures after Rose kicks her out of the apartment are unpredictable, hilarious and poignant. Like her older sister, she finds the appropriate profession for her unique skills and finally realizes that she has self-worth. Although it may be easier to identify with Rose, Maggie steals the reader’s heart. She gets the book’s last line, and the reader feels she has earned that honor.
Ella Hirsch, a secondary character who plays a major role in the Feller sisters’ story, is a vibrant 78-year old woman who proves that loving and learning don’t stop after menopause. Other secondary characters are equally interesting, and there is a pug named Petunia thrown in for good measure. Weiner seems to have studied at the Jennifer Crusie school of writing, which states that all good novels must have a dog.
In many ways, In Her Shoes is a better novel than Good in Bed, Weiner’s best-selling debut, with greater depth and fewer cheap, easy laughs. Ultimately, the story encourages the reader to ponder the extent of our responsibility to each other, as the characters, particularly Rose and Ella, struggle with how much they should help their loved ones when there is a huge cost to themselves. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. As an added bonus, you won’t be embarrassed by the cover this time.