The Fallback Plan, by Leigh Stein

There’s a certain kind of character in a novel that I just want to shake until his/her teeth rattle. I last encountered this kind of person in Jamie Fitzpatrick’s beautifully written You Could Believe in Nothing. It’s the passive character, the one whose life is going nowhere, who isn’t happy about it, and who seems to lack the energy or gumption to change anything. Now, if this character is, say, Terisa Morgan in Stephen Donaldson’s The Mirror of Her Dreams, and she’s about to get sucked into a fantasy world and turn into a hero, that’s cool. If the novel is realism rather than fantasy you sort of expect that something is going to happen to act as a catalyst for change in this character’s life, that he or she will have moved a few steps in some different direction by the time you close the book. If that hasn’t happened, my overall feeling at the end of the book tends to be, “Why bother having written a book about this character?”

We meet just such a character in The Fallback Plan. Esther Kohler has just graduated from college with a degree in theatre but seems to have no passion, no plan, and no direction about what to do next. She moves back to her parents’ home and tries to avoid adulthood, until her parents (quite sensibly) pressure her into getting a job. Since Esther lacks even basic job-search skills, or enough energy to pound pavements, she falls into the job her parents have lined up for her — babysitting for a neighbouring family.

I’ve seen this novel described as “hilarious” several times, and the writing is certainly funny in tone — Esther has a great voice — and parts of it can be read as humour. But at the core, it’s actually quite a sad novel. Insofar as the reasons for Esther’s quarter-life inertia are explored (which is not a great deal), her situation is rather sad. She’s still recovering from an episode of severe depression which almost derailed her last semester at college — though, in keeping with the light-hearted way this book treats serious subjects, the implication seems to be that Esther somehow made herself depressed by an overdose of method acting while preparing to play a depressed character in a play: any real underlying causes are never addressed.

Even sadder is the situation of the family she babysits for, who have recently lost an infant to SIDS. Their surviving child, Esther’s charge, is an engaging little thing but neither of her parents, severed from themselves and from each other by grief, is really able to connect with her. Esther is able to make that connection, and as much as there’s any emotional core to this novel, anything that does nudge Esther in a less passive direction, it’s her relationship with the child, both of whose parents are trying to make Esther their confidante.

There’s so much good stuff here that the book is ultimately a bit frustrating. Esther’s relationship with two male friends is intriguing and takes up a good deal of space at the beginning of the novel, but after taking a potentially interesting turn, that plotline fizzles out. The tragedy of the Brown family and the darker sides of Esther’s backstory ring true but are almost at odds with the breezy tone of the novel.

It’s Esther’s inertia that irritated me most in this novel as I always find myself wanting to slap passive characters. Perhaps it’s just the fact that I read this book during the same week that I spent one day as an extra on the set of Republic of Doyle. The Doyle set was crawling with theatre students and recent theatre grads who were hauling around props, taking care of extras, even being extras themselves — working their earnest little tails off to do anything, any job that might possibly get them close to the field they want to work in. Contrast this attitude with Esther, who has a theatre degree and thinks maybe she might work as an usher at the movies as a way of getting close to the film industry … well, I got pretty irritated at her lack of motivation. If her mental health issues are supposed to be the reason for her passivity, then they need to be treated with more seriousness (which would be a whole other novel); if this is just a portrait of a well-off, well-cared-for twenty-two-year old who simply can’t stop fooling around and be an adult, well, that’s likely to be annoying to a reader in her forties who’s been putting in a solid day’s work for an honest day’s pay ever since she was 21. In fact, I’m now so old that I read the book empathizing more with Esther’s parents than with Esther and hoping that in a few years I won’t be stuck with an overgrown teenager who doesn’t know how to get a job.

There’s a moment in this novel where Esther realizes that life is not like a novel — there is no epiphany, no climax, no turning point where everything suddenly makes sense and your path forward is clear. That passage (which, like everything else in this book, is very well-written) struck me because I realized: this is the kind of book this is going to be; the moment I’m waiting for, when Esther finally grows up, is not going to arrive in a dramatic climax. And of course, Stein is right — real life is very rarely like a novel, but then, don’t we read novels because they are inherently more interesting than real life? Despite my example of being able to find tons of hard-working, motivated twenty-somethings working on the Doyle set, I agree it’s easy enough to find passive, bored, unmotivated twenty-two year-olds in real life as well. But if we’re going to read books about them (and this returns to the question I asked back when I read You Could Believe in Nothing — obviously people like this exist, but do we need to read about them?), surely we want to see something interesting happen — movement, change, growth, disaster — something.

After all that ranting, I have to admit that something does happen to Esther over the course of the novel; while there’s only a minimal dramatic climax and no huge epiphany, she does seem to finish the book more ready to move forward in her life than she was when the story began. In a well-written story with some nice comic touches, this might be enough character development to make the journey worthwhile for many readers. For me … I’m still not sure.

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