Little Earthquakes by Jennifer Weiner – FOUR STARS
I’m not planning to review a lot of fiction books. I find non-fiction much more interesting, and my fiction choices are usually throw-away novels. Little Earthquakes is different for me, though. I have owned it for years and read it several times. I wanted to read it again while pregnant, and it touched me the same way it always did. It tugs at my heart, turns my emotions inside out, and leaves me bawling through the last few chapters.
Little Earthquakes follows the stories of four women and the intimate details of their lives as they navigate marriage, pregnancy, birth, and new motherhood. A premise like that would normally make me shy away from a book, certain that it would be a trite, shallow look at women who are nothing like me. I’m not sure how I managed to pick up the book in the first place. It’s far from trite, though, and I’m ever-glad for being able to read these words.
Each of the women is completely different from one another, and in most ways completely different from me, yet in each of their complex characters I can find something to relate to. Kelly is a type-A personality who’s dying for her scheduled C-section and then later struggling to keep up appearances when her world is tumbling out of control, and I identify with her deep-seated need to feel like she’s in charge of her life. Becky is a fat woman who plans for a natural childbirth but doesn’t quite get her way and has excruciating conflicts with her extended family along the way, making her the character I see myself most in. Ayinde is most unlike me, a woman married to a famous man and dealing with the way their family is sometimes cruelly pushed into the spotlight, yet I still identify with her quiet struggles to find meaning in places she never thought she would. And Lia is the most tragic character, trying not to drown in a life where she’s lost her family, lost her identity, and completely lost her way. While I can’t relate to her tragedy, it’s easy to relate to the feeling of trying to keep your head above water against the odds.
For all four of the women, the ramifications of their relationships with their own families snake into the present, even if their parents are no longer present. These effects and the ways that the women deal with them – and don’t deal with them – provide some of the most tear-jerking moments for me. It seems to me that we never really escape our childhoods and that parenting brings that reality to the stark forefront. And it seems that no matter how much we might have “dealt with” the past, it’s always still there, ready to flare up again unexpectedly.
All of the themes in Little Earthquakes seem at first glance rather mundane – balancing work and motherhood, worrying if you’re succeeding as a mother, fighting with your mother-in-law, obsessing over money, finding enough hours in the day, etc. Even the theme of family disappointments and tragedy, if not casual, is still so normal. Yet somehow Jennifer Weiner makes a magic out of these themes, weaving in and out of the inner lives of women who are easy to relate to. The character story-telling is compelling enough that even when I think I might be judgmental of an aspect of a character, I am instead pulled in to her story, her reasons, her meaning.
And that’s the true wonder of this book which is absent in so much fiction: the characters are given real lives and real feelings, giving you a window into the intricacies of another person’s mind. Little Earthquakes delivers the message that relationships, parenthood, and simply life are complicated and messy terrains where things rarely stack up the way we intend them to. That’s a valuable message worth reminding ourselves of over and over again, which is part of why I come back to this book again and again. Being drawn into this nuanced story brings me to understand and relate to people much different from myself, and therefore perhaps better able to understand and relate to myself as well.
by Jennifer Weiner