WHEN IT HAPPENS TO YOU by Molly Ringwald

It’d be disingenuous not to mention an acting career which saw her star in the two most popular teen movies of the 1980s; THE BREAKFAST CLUB and PRETTY IN PINK. Equally, it would be ridiculous to assume that the legacy of the notoriety those films bestowed upon her did not in some way ease her passage to bookshop recommended tables of the world.
This notion in itself means that many might approach Ringwald’s debut novel WHEN IT HAPPENS TO YOU with weary cynicism, aiming dismissive prejudice towards it regardless of any artistic merits or, indeed, lack thereof… For restless Ringwald it does seem to have been all about the writing, but what of the balance between art and commerce?
There must have been at least a grain of doubt in her head about the likelihood of attaining genuine kudos if she applied her name to reinventive motions in an entirely different area of the arts than that in which she’s most often moved. That said, would this book have the same reach, the same commercial clout, if it did not have her name on the cover? Of course not. The danger with this very public learning curve, of course, is that Molly Ringwald could fall flat on her face, credibility buried forever.
In this case, though, any public prejudice or private pang is just about unfounded – Molly Ringwald can write. She’s tentative about it from time-to-time, subtly working her way through an apprenticeship, but for the most part she writes with confident brio.
She’s often economic with language, sometimes a touch mannered, dryly considered or plain awkward, so once-or-twice the book feels slightly overwrought. Standing in opposition to a generally brisk tone, however, her characters engage in interior emotional dialogues which can be a bit foggy – but that trade-off may be entirely the intention and, ultimately, the book is an engaging first foray with one-or-two surprisingly amusing or affecting moments.
Occasionally Ringwald is vaguely reminiscent of Anne Tyler, in the way that her stories are driven forward, but she can be quite light on her keys with incidental detail. When character colouring does come, it can often be tossed in as a seemingly irrelevant one-liner, but each of these contributes greatly to the cumulative tone of the book.
The opening story – THE HARVEST MOON – is a good beginning, quietly lulling the reader into a misaligned relationship between a husband and wife heading towards the end of their unsuccessful curve of trying for a second child. Nothing much happens, it’s something of a mood piece but, despite the denoument of this section being visible from at least a few pages back, it’s satisfying in its ache. THE PLACES YOU DON’T WALK AWAY FROM, six sections later, revisits the dynamics of that relationship for a further pick at the scabs.
Billed as “a novel in stories”, a series of vignettes – some written with poignant or earnest heart, some penned with vicious and jaded eye – introduce interlinked characters and offer different perspectives on familiar mid-life themes (the political and emotional intricacies of family, the ability of love to quietly mutate under pressure or over time and, key, the forms and effects of betrayal).
Not without flaws, on the whole WHEN IT HAPPENS TO YOU is a compelling debut and stands on its own merits.