Book Review: When It Happens to You by Molly Ringwald

Just about any child of the 80’s is sure to recognize the name Molly Ringwald. During my teens, I watched and re-watched Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles and then lost track of her (with the exception of her role in The Stand) until getting addicted to her ABC Family series, The Secret Life of the American Teenager. I vaguely recalled that Ringwald had written a memoir, which I fully intended to read and then forgot about completely. After reading her first venture into fiction, When It Happens to You, I want to learn more about her and what shaped her into the incredible person that she is.

When It Happens to You focuses on two characters, the newly separated Greta and Phillip Parris, as they decide whether or not they want to save their marriage after Phillip’s infidelity with their 6-year-old daughter Charlotte’s 19-year-old violin instructor.  Though the novel is actually a collection of short stories, it very much reads like a novel because either Greta, Charlotte, or Phillip is involved with side characters that become the main characters in some of the other stories. Unfortunately, this is also one of the weaknesses of Ringwald’s novel; I enjoyed getting to know some of those characters–particularly Marina, a woman whose young son identifies as a female. Her story arc has a very abrupt ending, and when she eventually surfaces in a later story, it’s repetitive of a conversation that had happened in an earlier section. Other side characters, such as Betty, were less interesting to me, but possibly only because I could not relate very easily to a 73-year-old woman.

Despite my disinterest with certain characters and story arcs, Ringwald has a gift for writing compelling and flawed characters. Even though several of them are not very likable, I was able to muster up some compassion for them. Phillip was perhaps the most difficult character to like, but he became more human to me during his interactions with Marina. A small part of me was hoping that Marina and Phillip might start to connect on an emotional level in all of the ways that he was unable to connect with Greta. As for Greta, I thought she would benefit well with fending for herself for awhile, and learning how to be a strong, independent woman.

Although I enjoyed Ringwald’s characters, I was not as receptive to her writing technique. She can definitely construct an interesting sentence and for the most part has efficient grammar skills, but I could not ignore that she relied far too heavily on “telling” vs. “showing”. While a writer can definitely employ “telling” to quickly get readers to the next portion of the story, I prefer that it be used sparingly and only when absolutely necessary. So much of what Ringwald shares about her characters is spoon fed to the readers through paragraph after paragraph of background. There were quite a few scenes that would have been even more dramatic if she’d taken the time to develop it more, either through dialogue or better description. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I began reading When It Happens to You, but overall it was a positive reading experience for me. It made me want to learn more about Molly Ringwald “the writer” vs. “the actress”, and convinced me that I would love to read any future works by Ringwald so that  I can see how she has grown as a writer.

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