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BOOKS IN THE MIRROR: Mystery Rings False: GOODNIGHT NOBODY, Jennifer Weiner, Atria Books 9/05

In the murder mystery Goodnight Nobody, Kate Klein, mother of three kids under five, reads Goodnight Moon to her four-year-old daughter Sophie. “Goodnight comb and goodnight brush, Goodnight nobody, goodnight mush.”

‘Mama, who is Nobody?’ Sophie asked, pointing at the blank page.”

Jennifer Weiner, an accomplished writer whose book In Your Shoes has been made into a newly released film by director Curtis Hansen, has written a murder mystery which seeks to answer a compelling question in our increasingly conservative social climate. Who is Nobody? Who are our modern day housewives? What do they do all day? How is it that a significant number of housewives are thin, showered, manicured, coiffed, and dressed in something besides sweat pants and a t-shirt within three months after giving birth?

The main plot is a murder mystery. Murder victim Kitty Cavanaugh is a seemingly not-too- desperate housewife who never had a bad hair day. Amateur sleuth Kate Klien is a former tabloid writer, recently relocated to the suburb of Upchurch and struggling to fit in. Overwhelmed by her children and effectively ignored by her husband, Kate elevates herself out of her suburban nightmare by investigating Kitty’s death.

Kate finds Kitty’s dead body face down in the kitchen, a knife sticking out of her back. This image is a potent metaphor for Upchurch, a place where the gossip is unrelenting and, in Kate’s view, backstabbers lurk around every corner.

Kate, armed with a Hello Kitty notebook, goes about her investigation in a straightforward manner. While Weiner takes great pains to show how Kate arranges for child care so she can conduct her investigation, readers with small children who know the pain of trying to find a last-minute babysitter will most likely find this part of the book to be more of a fabrication than the murder plot itself. In addition, Kate’s implausible knack for getting complete strangers to let her into their homes, offices, and limos wears a bit thin, given her pariah status in the community.

The murder mystery plot is a simple whodunit with a twist. What elevates Weiner’s book above such genre specific mediocrity are the other more compelling mysteries in the novel. First, how do the mommies of Upchurch find the time to groom themselves, care for their children, and prepare healthy, well-balanced meals consisting of organic vegetables and soy protein? Second, why did Kate marry Ben, a man she hardly knew? Finally, once married to him, why does she become such a doormat, never objecting to his working outside the home seven days a week, virtually twenty-four hours a day? Ben is almost a non-character, present in the book long enough to bark loudly at Kate about protecting herself and their children, and then he is gone again, leaving the house before Kate wakes up in the morning, returning home after she has gone to sleep.

Kate struggles to keep her sanity, feeling she no longer exists in the real world. While other people have exciting careers and dinner plans, she has a mind numbing yet relentlessly demanding routine. In three hours, she tells her husband, she “does three loads of laundry, picks up the dry cleaning, gets the oil changed, swings by the grocery store, picks the kids up from nursery school, feeds them lunch in the car, and then it’s off to Craft Circle.”The tragedy of the bored housewife takes on new meaning in Goodnight Nobody. The housewives of this novel are older, with a long list of professional accomplishments preceding their marriages and children. Kate’s laugh out loud observations on her neighbors’ obsessions are the best parts of the novel. After all, these women were well-respected in the professional world. What made them retreat, Kate wonders, into “the wonderful world of cloth diapers, handcrafted wooden toys, pesticide-free snacks, and scheduling every second of their children’s lives for maximum enrichment?”

Weiner finds these women a bit too funny to take seriously, but readers could jump to the obvious conclusion – after dedicating the first part of their adult lives to their careers, wouldn’t it make sense that these women would want to dedicate themselves just as fully to the new and expanding field of domestic engineering? The author has a determinedly closed mind concerning these women, giving her comedy a potent, mean-spirited spark.Indeed, Weiner is a wonderful comic writer, yet the book as a whole is unsatisfying. She only hints at solutions to domestic mysteries many real life Santa Monica mothers puzzle over every day. Instead, as the book progresses, Weiner narrows everything down to the murder mystery plot, which sadly has a pat, predictable ending. Stay at home mothers are obviously her target audience. They will get all the jokes, but they will finish this book wishing it had delved more deeply into their lives. After all, whether housewife or candlestick-maker, bricklayer or CEO, we all want to be taken seriously.

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