The Fallback Plan
Melville House Books
$14.95, paperback, 176 pages (also available as an ebook)
Release date: Jan. 3, 2012
For some people, the time after college is a second adolescence. Responsibilities of exams and classes are over, but responsibilities of the real world haven’t kicked in yet as recent graduates look for a job in their chosen field or continue to struggle to define what they want to do when they grown up.
The latter is the situation facing Esther in Leigh Stein’s The Fallback Plan. Having moved back in with her parents, Esther feels very much in between stages of her life. She drifts for a bit before landing a babysitting/nanny job with family friends. The family’s youngest daughter died six months before the novel opens, and Esther’s job involves entertaining the remaining daughter, May, while her mother works on a mysterious art project in the attic.
Along the way, Esther indulges her previous college and adolescent side by hanging out in playgrounds smoking marijuana with childhood friends.
The book moves quickly, and Stein draws clear characters at crossroads in their lives.
The problem, unfortunately, is that it’s hard for readers to care about characters who aren’t sure whether or not they like themselves. Esther’s inability to move forward as an adult could be an interesting character trait if Esther seemed more invested in moving forward or had strong feelings about it either way. Instead she drifts, a little too willing to accept whatever is thrown at her without being upset or joyful over her circumstances. Esther doesn’t seem to have an opinion of herself and it’s difficult for a reader to care much about her either.
It’s telling that the stories Esther tells May to pass the time are more interesting than Esther’s own story. The original fairy tales center on a young panda girl whose travails mirror Esther’s. When Esther falls for Jack, one of her childhood friends, he shows up in the panda’s story.
How the panda experiences the crush is not as predictable as what happens to Esther and Jack. Also predictable is the relationship between Esther and May’s father.
Yet, despite the predictability, nothing happens. Esther has a safe pseudo-affair with May’s father, but it doesn’t progress to the point of danger. She sleeps with Jack, but the lack of emotional consequences or effect on the plot makes it another “meh” event in Esther’s life. Amy shows clear signs of being dangerously unhinged and Stein lays the groundwork for a big event that would threaten May or Amy that never materializes.
The novel ends as it began. Esther recognizes that her childhood is over, but doesn’t have a firm plan for the future or a firm grasp on who she wants to be. She’s grown closer to her parents and recognized she wants more than meaningless sex and affairs, but the overall impression is that the events of the novel weren’t that important to Esther, which makes them not that important to a reader.