Why Author Jennifer Weiner’s Mom Will Always Keep Her Grounded
Twelve dollars for a cup of chicken soup? A Diet Coke for the price of a six-pack? Not for “the cheapest woman in the world,” says her daughter, Jennifer Weiner, in this exclusive adaptation from Hungry Heart.
My mother has been part of my writing life since I was old enough to push a chubby red pencil across a lined page and write the words “Once upon a time.” She was always reading something—a novel, a newspaper, a magazine—and always clearly engrossed. She was a walking example of the magic of stories, and she made me want to grow up and tell them.
And so, after a lifetime as a reader, four years as an English major, eight years as a journalist, and one horrible breakup, I made my first serious attempt at a novel.
I wrote for a year and a half, in private, and mostly in secret. I was a newspaper reporter, and the newspaper reporter who really wants to write fiction is a major clichÃ©. My mom was one of my few confidantes, and she repaid my faith by not believing me. Every time I would mention “the book” or “the manuscript,” she would drape her hand across her forehead in an affected fashion and say, “Oh yes, the NOVEL.” So it was with a great deal of pride that I went home to inform my mom, Fran, that the novel she didn’t think I was writing or didn’t believe I could finish had been sold.
“Fran!” I said. “Remember that novel you didn’t think I was writing?”
“Oh yes,” said Fran, eyes rolling. “The NOVEL.”
“Well! Simon & Schuster has acquired it as part of a two-book deal! And foreign rights have been sold in 16 countries!”
My mother’s eyes widened. Then they filled with tears. She threw her arms around me, hugging me tight, whispering that she was so proud of me. Then she drew back.
“So what is it called?” she asked.
“Good in Bed,” I mumbled.
“What was what?”
“Good in Bed.”
“Good and Bad?”
“No. No, Ma.”
Fran shook her head, her expression shifting from maternal pride to maternal shame. “Jenny, how much research did you do?”
In the year between the book’s sale and its publication, Fran made her peace with both the book’s title and its content. She also agreed to be part of my book-tour entourage, along with my sister, Molly. Which meant that, over 16 cities, in 2001, I got to answer the question, What happens when you take the cheapest woman in the world and bring her on an all-expenses-paid 10-day book tour with cars and drivers and four-star hotels?
“Look at her,” Molly whispered as Fran wandered, wide-eyed and bewildered, through the lobby of the Beverly Wilshire—the Pretty Woman hotel, where I still couldn’t believe my publisher was putting me up. “She looks like she’s been clubbed.”
We observed as Fran inspected the elaborate floral arrangements, taking a tentative sniff, then as she turned to stare at a trio of well-dressed women swanning by, heels clicking briskly on the marble floor.
“She’s saying something,” Molly reported.
We edged in close enough to hear my mother murmuring, “It’s too much.”
Molly and I decided we would make a Wild Kingdom–style documentary entitled Fran in the Wild...except, of course, her “wild” was luxury. From Atlanta to Dallas to San Francisco to L.A., Molly and I followed Fran around hotels and in and out of Town Cars, delivering a Marlin Perkins–esque voice-over, just loud enough for Fran to hear. “At first, the animal is wary of its new surroundings,” I said as Fran wheeled her suitcase into a hotel suite, having waved off the offer of assistance with her luggage. “Let’s watch as it attempts to acclimate to a strange environment.”
Fran touched the bedspread, flicked on a lamp, flipped open the room-service menu, and hissed as if she’d been scalded.
“Twelve dollars for a cup of chicken-noodle soup?!?”
I drifted after her, in the direction of the bathroom, as Fran squirted L’Occitane lemon-verbena lotion into her hand, sniffed it, rubbed some on her arms, pocketed the little bottle, then examined the selection of soaps and shampoos.
“My assistant will now attempt to provoke the wild Fran,” I announced as Molly sidled up to the minibar. Fran’s head snapped around.
“DON’T YOU TOUCH THAT!” she shouted.
Molly paused, her hand halfway to a Diet Coke. “What?”
“DO. NOT. TOUCH THAT. Do you have any idea how much that costs? I can get you a six-pack of soda at the Rite Aid down the block for the cost of one Diet Coke!”
“The animal is angry,” I murmured as Molly flipped the tab of her soda. “Watch as the predator continues to taunt it.”
“Jenny, I can hear you! Put those Oreos down. CUT THAT OUT! Oh, you two are going to drive me crazy!”
Eventually—reluctantly—we’d leave the fancy hotel and go to a bookstore for a reading. Fran, being Fran, would prowl the stacks, occasionally chatting with other customers before the reading began.
“I just read the most amazing novel!” I once heard her say while I was behind the customer-service desk, signing a stack of Good in Bed. Here it comes, I thought, swelling with satisfaction.
“Empire Falls!” said Fran. “By Richard Russo! Do you know his books?”
At which point, I pulled her aside and explained that, unless I received confirmed reports that Mrs. Russo was somewhere in the wilds of Maine, pimping my books to unsuspecting shoppers, she was not to promote his work on my tour.
Fifteen years after my first book was published, my mother, like many animals whose environments have changed, has adapted. She can enjoy a Four Seasons with the best of them, but the frugality that underpins her behavior and informs her life view has not budged. She still won’t order room service or buy any food on the road. She will insist on carrying her own luggage (currently a donated duffel with a Teamsters logo on the pocket). She’ll tell people that my books are “page-turners” and extol the virtues of whatever she’s currently loving, from Eloisa James’s memoir of Paris to Geraldine Brooks’s newest novel.
Years ago, we were traveling between Philadelphia and Florida on vacation. The night before the trip, to kick it off, we’d gone to the best Mexican restaurant in town, and ordered, basically, everything—the spicy street corn, the ceviche sampler, the guacamole with pistachios and chile flakes, empanadas filled with this, and burritos full of that. It was way too much food, and I thought it was only a reflex when my mom asked them to pack up the leftovers, even though no one would be home to eat them.
The next morning, we boarded a plane. I’d gotten my daughters settled, with my mom and my sister a few rows behind us. The plane took off, we reached our cruising altitude, the captain turned off the Fasten Seat Belt sign, and all was well. Until I started smelling garlic. Lots of garlic. Plus chiles and black beans.
“What is that?” I whispered. Lucy unbuckled her seat belt, clambered onto her knees, and turned around, peering through the crack between the seats.
“Fran is eating nachos!” she reported.
“The nachos from last night?”
I stood up, squinting. Fran, with a Styrofoam clamshell open on her tray table, gave me a cheerful wave. I spent the rest of the trip reviving a skill I’d perfected as a child, when she’d pull the jar of peanut butter out of her tote bag during, for example, the changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery. “Is that your mom?” the woman sitting beside me asked. I smiled and shrugged and said, “I’ve never seen her before in my life.”