Updated: August 30, 2012 6:14AM
When it comes to chick lit, Emily Giffin ranks as a grand master. Over the course of five best-selling novels, she has traversed the slippery slopes of true love, lost love, marriage, motherhood, betrayal, forgiveness and redemption that have led her to be called “a modern-day Jane Austen.”
Giffin’s eagerly awaited sixth novel, Where We Belong (St. Martin’s, $27.99), fits right into this mix. Here the author tackles the mother-daughter relationship. But this is not the story of one mother and one daughter but rather two mothers and one daughter.
Marion Caldwell is a successful 36-year-old television producer whose life in New York revolves around her career and relationship with Peter, the head of her network. She believes their affection for each other is genuine, and everything is going smoothly until she mentions the M word — marriage— and Peter hesitates.
On the same night as this revelation, standing at Marion’s door is 18-year-old Kirby, the daughter she gave up for adoption when she was Kirby’s age. Precocious, determined and somewhat of a rebel, Kirby is on a mission to find out where she really comes from. She loves her adoptive parents and sister in St. Louis but feels like she doesn’t belong there — or anywhere.
It all begins one night after arguing with her parents about her lack of interest in going to college. Kirby retreats to her room and makes an oath: “I squeezed my eyes shut, thinking of her as I often did at night, a rapid succession of faces flashing in my brain, until I settled where I usually did on a cross between Meryl Streep and Laura Linney. But this time, she was a sickly, crackhead version of the two actresses, my fantasies of a glamorous, successful mother quickly fading. In that moment I decided I was going to find her … to find out the truth about who she was and why she had given me away.”
Hidden away in the back of Marion’s mind was the thought that this moment could one day happen, but when it does, it’s “the most surreal, disorienting, and downright dreamlike thing” that she has ever experienced. As the two tiptoe around each other, a journey of discovery begins. For Marion, it’s facing the past and the people she deceived, as well as rediscovering what she really wants in life. For Kirby, it’s the future and understanding her relationships with Marion, her adoptive parents and the birth father she knows is out there and waiting to be found.
Giffin has a gift for storytelling, but Where We Belong suffers from a high predictability quotient. Once you get the feel for Giffin’s style, figuring out major plot points is pretty easy. And in a story of lies, deceit and lost dreams, why doesn’t anyone get angry. No one vents, no one lets off steam; everything is eerily copacetic in Giffin’s sometimes too-polished world.
While Austen fans may cringe at the aforementioned comparison, there is truth to it. Years from now, Giffen’s novels may not stand the test of time as Austen’s have. Austin’s were unique for their time; Giffin’s not so much. But with Giffin’s use of humor, honesty, originality and, like Austen, a biting social commentary, this modern-day “woman’s novel” sits easily on nightstands and in beach bags. Even Austen would find it hard to put down.
Mary Houlihan is a local free-lance writer.