New York, NY: Melville House, 2012. 224 pages. $14.95.
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Here’s my prediction for future publishing seasons: one of the fruits of the recession will be a slew of narratives on arrested development. With job prospects slim for the overeducated, under-resourced newly college graduates, novels about the period in-between, and all the mistakes that can happen in those hazy days, will surely make for a revival of the bildungsroman. Stories will detail long periods of underemployment and dissatisfaction, throwing lyrical narrators into less-than-lyrical positions. Yearning will become the driving emotion, and disenchantment the ultimate outcome. In fiction, there’s never been a better time to be undeclared.
The Fallback Plan, Leigh Stein’s debut novel, is such a tale—a coming-of-age story motivated by total stasis. After graduating with a theater degree from Northwestern, Esther Kohler moves back in with her parents, more intrigued by the prospect of a terminal illness that would exempt her from working life than by the actual get-up-and-get-a-job experience. “Nothing was happening to me,” she says, “and there was the promise of more of the same.” She fills her summer hours with self-flagellating and Googling images of baby pandas. (This is part, she explains, of a prospective novel setting four lonely pandas adrift in a Narnia-like setting). Esther’s voice is recognizable—anyone watching Lena Dunham’s Girls will recognize the well-intentioned yet unavoidable navel-gazing and sense of self-importance—and yet Esther is more overtly anxious, keener to take care of things and set the world right, to use her “grim imagination as a preventative measure in the face of the random universe.”
When she takes on a gig babysitting for her neighbors, Amy and Nate Brown and their daughter May, however, her imagination begins to fail her. With an infant daughter recently deceased, Esther becomes their unintentional confidante, struggling and failing to communicate with each other in dangerously destructive ways. Stein draws neat, subtle lines between Esther’s troubles and those of her employers; though Esther’s concerns about her future are legitimate, they are quietly invalidated in the wake of true tragedy. When she fails, Esther wallows in self-doubt; she diagnoses her desire to chase after bad boys as a weakness, because “there’s something devastatingly attractive about wild cards and loose cannons.” But Amy is in a deeper depression, and the contrasting depictions of these real, “grown-up” problems provide some much-needed perspective. Even when Esther becomes an active participant in Nate’s extracurricular activities, she can start to see how much more is at stake when the adults are the ones opting to get high and check out.
Much of the territory in The Fallback Plan has been covered before: in Girls, in the film Juno, and in Lorrie Moore’s much darker and more manipulative 2009 novel A Gate at the Stairs. Stein doesn’t take this slim novel into many new places, and it’s a missed opportunity. I kept hoping that Esther’s drama degree would lead her into more lies that would fall apart to devastating effect. When Esther realizes the depths of the Browns’ sorrow, her role has become so passive it is difficult to see why she feels as involved as she does. She imagines sweeping her charge May off as a ticket to some “second childhood,” a desire she knows is a fantasy. Perhaps Esther’s cynicism and detachment is proof that one doesn’t truly long for childhood until childhood has exited the building. The excuse she longs for, the one that would take away all responsibility for growing up is, “She didn’t mean to. She didn’t know any better.” But Esther’s voice is too knowing to have ever been completely ignorant. In Stein’s melancholy, moody debut novel, the reader gets to swim through the ambivalence of newly-minted adulthood, and Esther’s story leaves us wistful for a simpler, more prosperous time. Maybe that time was childhood, or maybe just a better job market. Either way, the bildungsroman in the early twenty-first century looks more nervous, anxiety-laden, and yet eager to please on every page. Leigh Stein’s approach, less Holden Caulfield and more cock-eyed optimist, may signal the arrival of a new kind of young adult: imaginative, insecure, and somewhat unprepared for what adulthood may require of her.