Once again, I was pleasantly surprised. I may or may not have read this book when it came out several years ago, but if I did I certainly didn't like it, because I've been carrying around a negative impression of Jennifer Weiner for years. I truly have no idea where this disdain came from. Maybe someone gave me aversion therapy without my knowing it. Either way, I'm mending my missteps now.
I would have a hard time reviewing this book without tying it to the movie it was made into in 2005, with Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette as sisters Maggie and Rose Feller, respectively. I usually try to read the adapted book before I see the movie, because I want to be able to form my own images, but in this case I'd already seen the movie more than once and couldn't get Diaz and Collette out of my head. Fortunately, unlike many movie adaptions, In Her Shoes stayed true to the story and was acted excellently, so I didn't have any trouble meshing the book and movie versions in my head.
Rose and Maggie are sisters with the same shoe size, but their resemblance and connection ends there. Rose is the steady, organized, somewhat boring and slightly overweight older sister; Maggie is the hard-drinking, street-wise, seductive and shiftless younger sister. The book begins with their interactions as roommates. Rose is trying to get Maggie employed and out of her apartment, and Maggie is still trying to break into stardom while slipping money out of Rose's wallet and shoes out of her closet. Tensions rise until Maggie does something despicable and Rose kicks her out. The middle of the novel takes them each on separate journeys. For Maggie, it's a journey of knowledge and self-discovery that leads her from a sleeping bag in a Princeton library to the retirement community in Florida where their long estranged grandmother Ella lives. For Rose, it's a time of letting go of herself and creating a new life, which eventually leads her to an engagement to a Simon, a food-loving fellow lawyer who is devoted to Rose. The end of the novel finds Rose seeking Maggie and Ella in Florida, and seeing how Maggie has changed from wayward drunk to responsible business owner and poetry lover. All are united at Rose's wedding, where Maggie makes a final attempt to completely redeem herself to her sister.
As the older half of a close sister relationship (though with much less conflict than Rose and Maggie!) I can say that Weiner writes sisters very well. She captures all of the dynamics, encompassing rivalry, jealousy, shared memory and fierce protectiveness. The two main characters were both complex and able to sustain a very organic, yet very dramatic change throughout the book. Their separate relationships with their deceased bipolar mother, withdrawn father, and overbearing stepmother were also written well.
There were a few loose ends in the book- the engagement between Rose and Simon in particular happened very quickly, and a strange relationship between Rose and Simon's grandmother's dog was revealed to be not coincidental, and yet never fully explained. The ending also felt kind of abrupt, and though the final scene was as moving as in the movie, I didn't feel there was a true reconciliation between the sisters, only a coming-to-terms sort of understanding with each other. I actually thought the movie was tighter and cleaner in that respect. All of the story lines were resolved clearly, without superfluous plot (for example, Maggie's time in Princeton was eliminated) and the themes of the movie were better defined: sisterhood, forgiveness, walking in each others' literal and figurative shoes. The book could have used a more decisive ending and some editing down, two elements that I think Jennifer Weiner improved upon in her later books.
All in all, it was a very enjoyable read, and I plan to watch the movie again soon.
To Ms. Weiner, if you're out there somewhere, I send you my sincere apologies. I have no idea what I didn't like about your books in the past. You are an excellent writer and I fully intend to read your entire body of work over the coming months. Keep 'em coming.