When We Talk About Love: On Molly Ringwald's "When it Happens to You"

By Sasha WatsonNovember 29, 2012

When it Happens to You by Molly Ringwald

WRITING, LIKE ACTING, is an act of definition, the artist asserting the existence of her characters with their every action and line of dialogue. Molly Ringwald’s move into the literary realm might be seen as an act of redefinition — and it is on just such redefinitions of self that her stories hinge. She offers some characters who have outgrown their old selves and have to break it to their loved ones; others who have become what they never expected to; and still others who fear what will happen if they allow the people around them to see them as they really are.

In the collection’s first story, 6-year-old Charlotte plays a what-if? game with her mother: “And what if I grew extra arms and legs, and they were furry like a spider, would you still love me then?” This points us directly toward the central dilemma of all of Ringwald’s characters: What if I’m not the person you think I am? What will happen to us then? The collection revolves around the narrative of Charlotte’s parents, Phillip and Greta, and their disintegrating marriage. The pair met as undergraduates at Stanford; when the book opens, many years later, they are living in Los Angeles, apparently happily. We meet the family as Phillip is rushing them out to see the harvest moon, which gives its title to the book’s first story, while Greta struggles into her skinny jeans, bemoaning the weight gain that has accompanied her thus-far-unsuccessful fertility treatments. The couple’s efforts to have a second child have caused some friction in the relationship, but things seem to be going as well as they usually do, the ups and downs not a threat to the structure of family life. Soon, however, this vision implodes. Phillip — as becomes clear to readers more quickly than to Greta — has been having an affair with Theresa, Charlotte’s teenage violin teacher. As the stories unfold, Greta will reel from the shock, and Phillip will break down under her interrogations, eventually revealing that it isn’t because he loves Theresa, but because she sees him as he wants to be seen: “She wanted him, he told Greta in one of the most raggedly honest moments of their marriage, during the brief pause before she closed her heart to him. The girl wanted him and that had been enough.” Greta, who torments herself with the details of Phillip’s infidelity, eventually realizes that what she sees as her claim to her husband — she understands him in a way this violin-playing girl never will — is, in fact, precisely what drives him into Theresa’s arms. “He doesn’t want to be understood. He wants to be misunderstood because in that misunderstanding lies the possibility of reinvention.”

Reinvention, then, is the goal of every character — be it Phillip, who wants first to be wanted, and then to be a husband again; Greta, who has devoted too much of herself to her marriage; a children’s television star who wants desperately to be taken seriously as an actor; or an elderly woman who regrets closing her heart to her daughter and gets a second chance with Greta and Phillip’s daughter Charlotte. Ringwald’s novel-in-stories is told from a variety of perspectives, all circling loosely around Phillip and Greta; it allows us to experience these characters in a multitude of ways, in a multitude of roles, as the true multitude of people that every individual really is. This form is satisfying, as if we’ve been let loose in the world of the story: rather than being led from beginning to end, we are free to wander and explore.

We see Greta not only as the betrayed wife, but as daughter, mother, neighbor, even the new lover of Peter, the children’s television star who briefly occupies center stage. We see Phillip as philandering husband first, but later as sad friend, and then as a wounded younger brother. Charlotte appears not only as her parents’ daughter, but also as a source of hope for her elderly neighbor, and as the obstacle to new love for Peter. Usually this shifting of perspectives works well, but occasionally it can be disconcerting and clumsy, as when, in the midst of “Redbud,” a story narrated by Greta’s mother Ilse, the narrative dives briefly into the mind of Milo, Greta’s heroin-addicted nephew: “That night, he tried heroin for the first time in a stranger’s garage and imagined that he was a baby again in Laurel’s arms before everything went bad.” In this case, the shift in perspective takes us abruptly into the consciousness a character we won’t meet again on the page, though we’ll hear from his grandmother the echoes of his trip through addiction. Because he isn’t a character we’ll explore in depth, this moment with him has a melodramatic feel; it’s an easy grab at our emotions and calls not upon our understanding of a character that Ringwald has crafted for us, but on the repository of emotion that surrounds addiction in general. It seems to be in the story to evoke an emotional minefield for the sake of forcing more drama from the situation.

The access to multiple perspectives can work brilliantly, however, in the examination of a relationship from many points of view. Earlier in “Redbud,” Ilse reflects on the beginning of her daughter’s marriage: “Greta met Phillip her first year of Stanford, and although Ilse liked him, there was something about the relationship that galled her. Her daughter no longer seemed driven to succeed, preferring instead to rally behind Phillip’s achievements.” Later in the collection, we hear Phillip’s ashamed assessment of this situation: “Greta was driven to succeed herself. When she inexplicably gave it up for him, he had never felt so important in his life.” In another story, Greta’s own point of view on her abdication comes back to how she imagines Phillip sees her: “Whatever beauty she thought she might have possessed she realized had only been through her husband’s assessment of her.” The images we have of the ones we love, the ways in which we use them to shape our images of ourselves, the attempt to satisfy others’ ideas of us — it’s all here, and it makes for rich characters and a rich world.

The animating energy of the novel is located in the title story, found at the center of the collection. It is narrated, in the second person, by Greta, and gives voice to the full range of rage and humiliation brought forth in her by her husband’s disloyalty. The “you” who Greta addresses is told that one day she, too, will find herself in Greta’s position, and will suffer as Greta suffers now. “The girl who will give him back this illusion of vitality for a short time will not think of your children or your marriage,” she warns. “Why would she? She wasn’t there when you both laughed your way through your wedding with a pure and nervous joy. She wasn’t there when you both waited for your first child to be born. When he held your hand and told you how the contractions were coming, with the seriousness of a boy, as he watched the peaks on the machine that was connected to your belly — you listening to the wondrous familiarity of his voice as though all of your lives depended on it.” Here, Ringwald gets to the purity of the anguish at the heart of her novel, of all that is lost not only with infidelity but with time. We understand this experience, as Greta describes it: the unbearable foolishness of the sacrifice her husband has made, her humiliating need to know the details of the betrayal, the impossibility of “getting past it” as those around her hope she will do. The pain in Greta’s voice is piercing because it is so terribly familiar.

Elsewhere, Ringwald does her best work with the small moments between family members. She captures the voices of children, their capricious revelations and retreats, and the raw emotion behind their pleas for safety and understanding. In “My Olivia,” a little boy named Oliver tells his mother with giggling honesty, “I’m really a girl.” The intimacy of the moment, the child’s quick shifts between humor and hurt, the mother’s self-conscious search for the right response — all are located there in the bed where mother and child sit reading, alone and deeply connected to one another; all feel deeply real. Beyond dialogue, Ringwald can make the surroundings reflect the thorny connections between family members, with surprising clarity. In a quiet moment between Greta and her mother, “[s]he pointed to a hanging plant whose leaves resembled the horns of an animal.” The simple description amplifies the menace that lurks behind the moment between mother and daughter, evoking the addicted boy who haunts their interaction.

It’s when she leaves these moments of intimate revelation behind that Ringwald goes astray. She occasionally allows her characters too much room to muse on their own situations, and they end up sounding less like vibrant, complex humans and more like dime store philosophers. From Peter, the jaded television star, we receive this truism: “And then the thought occurred to him that the moment you make someone promise anything is the same moment you ask them to lie to you.” And there’s Greta’s nearly incomprehensible thought from “The Harvest Moon”: “What is it that keeps us in fear of revelation? By whose design it is that we are held, suspended, hovering over our own lives?” This is perhaps related to a larger overdramatization of the event at the heart of the story. Though in many moments throughout the stories Greta and Phillip’s pain is well-drawn, in others it feels overdone. Ringwald inadverdently gestures at this problem in Greta’s monologue: “A journalist you will hear on the radio will talk about how he wasn’t allowed to use the word ‘tragedy’ in an article he wrote as it pertained to an artist, a man who had died in his fifties. One can’t use that word, he was told by the editors of the national paper. Not when there is genocide in the world. Not as long as ethnic cleansing exists, and landmines.” At moments, it’s hard not to feel that this editorial assessment was correct, and that, in fact, Greta and Phillip’s relationship is not as significant as its position at the heart of this novel would have us believe. Were Ringwald to stop insisting so strenuously on the tragedy of the infidelity, and instead to allow the moments of vulnerability and unease she draws so well to take the lead, her stories would be stronger and even more beguiling than they are. Much more is revealed in her keen observations of glancing contact between characters than in her more abstract reflections on life and betrayal. It is those moments — the ones in which people tear at the images their loved ones have of them, demanding to be seen in new and truer ways — that these stories, and the novel they comprise, truly shine.


Molly Ringwald on When it Happens to You: A LARB Interview


LARB Contributor

Sasha Watson is Los Angeles-based writer and teacher. Her novel, Vidalia in Paris, was published by Viking in 2008.


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