Linked-story collections are a difficult balancing act. They juggle multiple threads that have to stand alone as well as contribute to a larger narrative told in pieces, and they need to employ a wide array of characters that could feel inessential. And the genre is so similar to a novel that at times the distinction hardly seems necessary, except to create an artificial burden.
Classic examples of the form are up to the challenge: Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio is a coming-of-age story in small-town America that captures a moment in time like Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer-winning A Visit From The Goon Squad uses rock music to thematically link unrelated characters, and turns a PowerPoint presentation into compelling literature. The “novel in stories” When It Happens To You, the fiction debut of Sixteen Candles star Molly Ringwald, attempts to follow the tradition. Ringwald uses the linked-stories format to detail suburban dissatisfaction, the malaise of average existence, and the difficulties of repairing a broken relationship.
The stories all revolve around a marriage in crisis. Phillip and Greta have a 6-year-old daughter, Charlotte, but have been unable to conceive the son Greta always planned on. In the opening story, the marriage crumbles, and the remaining chapters loosely chart a year of separation, slowly revealing the details of Phillip’s infidelity. The other stories involve satellite characters around the marriage: Greta’s mother Isle, Phillip’s brother Tony, neighbors, friends, parents of Charlotte’s friends. Each one arrives in the service of revealing just a bit more about the marriage, its inherent difficulties, and the possibility of reconciliation.
A story about a crumbling suburban marriage isn’t exactly novel, and many of the chapters feel cribbed from previous rocky fictional marriages where infidelity is a factor. In fact, the collection’s two best stories initially have nothing to do with the central marriage at all. In “My Olivia,” single mother Marina raises her son Oliver, who from a very early age insists he is a girl. Ringwald makes it clear that Oliver’s difficulties won’t be limited to childhood, but will become harsher as he realizes how much the world won’t understand him. And in spite of Marina’s bountiful love and acceptance, she chooses to protect her child rather than encouraging behavior that will make Oliver a target. It’s a heartbreaking portrait of single motherhood and gender identity, but the only part that drags it down is a single sequence briefly entangling Marina and Phillip, as though anything he or Greta touches is cursed.
The other promising story, “Ursa Minor,” follows a promising theater actor turned washed-up children’s television host (think Steve Burns from Blue’s Clues) as he moves to Los Angeles in an attempt to get clean and restart his career. It’s a fascinating premise, but then Greta wanders in and the two pair off. The nature of the “novel in stories” dictates that either she or Phillip has to show up in each chapter, but at times, they grind an interesting tangent to a halt by pointing the action back to the central marriage.
With the exception of the title story, a brief, heartbreaking epistolary chapter from Greta to her husband’s mistress, Ringwald writes about her characters from a close third-person perspective, getting into their heads, but always remaining slightly removed and omniscient. That style makes the novel a bit too cleverly arranged, right down to the uncertain future looming just after the conclusion of the final story. There are a few moments where her narrative threatens to break free of expected constraints, but the central conceit is just to strong. That familiarity confines When It Happens To You to an occasionally entertaining example of a well-traveled genre.