If it weren’t for Jen Lancaster I never would have read Eat, Pray, Love. Before Jen, I had no time for non-fiction. Non-fiction was not my deal. And then I read Such a Pretty Fat in 2008. And I laughed out loud in the car on the way home from Borders reading it. After that, I was hooked on Jen Lancaster, and non-fiction didn’t seem so intimidating. I once watched someone in the Davis Borders skimming through Jen’s first book (Bitter is the New Black) in the café and she was LOL-ing. I looked at her, and wanted to go up to her and say, “Me too!! You must read all of her books.” But I thought that might be weird, so I didn’t. I hope she did what I wanted to tell her to do, because her life would be full of laughter.
Jen Lancaster started blogging as a hobby and parlayed that into a writing career. She was a dot-com executive-type who lost her job in the early 2000’s (when everyone in the dot-com world lost their jobs). The blog started out as a way to stay busy while she was looking for work, or between temp jobs, and she found a following, and got a book deal. Her blog, Jennsylvania, is not as frequently updated as it used to be, what with her actually having a busy life writing books and publicizing them and all that. She also has a Facebook and Twitter presence. I just love her. I will continue to refer to her as Jen, because that’s how I think of her—a friend I’ve never met in person, but who I’m sure I could split a bottle of chardonnay with no problem. I would love to go to a book-signing event of hers if she’d ever come to my town. Once she was in Oakland, and if I hadn’t had to work the next day I would have driven down for it. And this is not something I would normally ever consider. Because of her blog, I feel like I actually know this person, or at least know her more public persona. And she has dogs and cats that she’s obsessed with! She’s just like me!
This book is about Jen’s reluctant quest to become a “real” grown up. She buys a house, writes a will, and even wins a major award from Purdue, her alma mater (it only took her ten years to finish college). She, like all of us at times, has often felt like she was playing at being an adult, without actually doing all the things that adults do (see above). Of course, all journeys to adulthood are fraught with stumbling blocks, and Jen has more than her fair share. Of course, these are some of the most humorous moments in the book. Each chapter is an individual story of an event in Jen’s life. In her prior books the story has been more cohesive, and not so much a series of vignettes, so that was a little disappointing for me in a way. Also, and I may not have noticed this if I hadn’t read on Jen’s blog (so Jen this is your fault I have this complaint), but a lot of the stories have a distinct ring of familiarity to them—more of the content than usual seems to be pulled out of the blog. And expanded, of course, but still there’s more familiar ground being retread. Or maybe some of the anecdotes were present in a slightly different form in her novel from last year, If You Were Here (which is more than a little autobiographical), and that’s why they seem incredibly familiar.
Each chapter in the book also has a box at the end with a “reluctant adult lesson learned,” summarizing the moral of each story in a pithy way. For example, at the end of the chapter in which Jen details her attempts at facial waxing right before bed one night when she makes the mistake of looking at herself in her magnifying mirror under a very bright light (really, who would do that to themselves right before bed), the comment is “Philosophy makes a moisturizer that states on the label that you won’t find so many imperfections if you don’t go looking for them. The manufacturers of Philosophy products are a bunch of baby-booming hippies. My philosophy is you won’t find so many imperfections if you simply have that shit lasered (pp. 28-9).” Some of the other reluctant adult lessons are a bit more useful and less pithy, such as “Estate planning sucks. Do it anyway (p. 325).”
Of all the anecdotes Jen shares in this book, I have two favorites I want to specifically talk about. The first one details the shenanigans that ensure when the power goes out and the three young cats go on a walkabout. She conveys her fear for Gus (one of the three cats who run away, and the one who is gone the longest) and desperation to find him in a very believable way. It was totally relatable because I’ve had animals vanish for short periods of time and I’ve felt the same things. Jen is very good at humor and anger and sarcasm. This is maybe the first time she has done fear and sadness, or at least the best she has done it. “My cats can’t get out. My cats have never gotten out. Never. Not one of the six cats I had before the Thundercats ever made an unauthorized exit. I’ve now owned cats for twenty years and nobody’s ever escaped, sort of like Stalag 13 on Hogan’s Heroes. I have a perfect record. If I were a factory my sign out front would read: “This Organization Has Gone 7300 Days Without an Incident. I employ Constant VigilanceTM; this shit does not happen on my watch.” And after she realizes what has happened (the cats busted out a screen in a window she had opened because the air conditioning was out because of a power outage brought on by a summer storm), she “immediately break(s) out into a sweat…. And conduct(s) a thorough whole-house search for the Thundercats (p. 283).” This episode brings to mind several episodes with our animals, two by Maxwell the cat and one by Bailey the dog, taking off on unsanctioned, unsupervised wanderings about the neighborhood. Maxwell was gone for about five hours the first time, and fourteen hours the second time. Bailey was gone for about two hours. The most recent of these events was this summer, and the last time Maxwell went on a walkabout was 2006, but they still haunt me. As a veterinarian, the first things that enter my mind are always all the tragic things that can happen—hit by car, poisonings, attacked by wild animals, attacked by stray dogs, stolen by people who don’t think I am an adequate pet owner…. Give me more time and I’ll come up with more. When Bailey disappeared last month, I was at work. My husband called me and told me she’d run off, and if a kind good Samaritan hadn’t found her and brought her home while Jacob was looking for her, I would have left work and driven the 27.5 miles home to look for her too. All I was doing at work was crying, anyway. Well, that and making threats on my husband’s life to anyone who would listen. So, you see, Jen Lancaster loves her animals as much as I love mine. And that makes her good people. And I felt her stress and pain in this chapter. Fortunately for all, all three of the Thundercats made their way home, none the worse for wear.
The second of my favorite stories details Jen’s return to Purdue to accept her Distinguished Alumnus award. It proves that the more a person changes, the more that person remains the same. Jen, her husband, her college roommate, and college roommate’s husband travel to Purdue for the ceremony. Everything goes well. Jen does not embarrass herself during the ceremony; she gives a speech and it is amusing and well-received. She feels like a real grown-up. This is contrasted with brief tales from her college days, including one incident involving slipping on ice while inebriated, sliding under her now-husband’s truck, and being so proud that she did not drop the burrito she was carrying, even though she ripped her pants, hit her head, and had an asthma attack from falling/laughing (pp. 332-333). After the ceremony, Jen and her three companions plan to go have a few drinks and then head back to the hotel. They stop at Harry’s, a dive bar that was their old hangout, expecting to have a beer, feel nostalgic, and then head out for someplace less divey. That is not what happens. Here is what happens: “we enter Harry’s and it IS 1993. The place looks—and smells—exactly like it used to and the old friends we’d hope to meet are right there at the door while Steve Perry wails in the background about holdin’ on to that feelin’. It’s like Brigadoon. Only with beer…. In honor of the occasion, I switch from the wine I’d politely sipped at the dinner to Long Islands because it feels so appropriate. As for the rest of the evening, I’ve pieced together what I can via tweets, photographs, Facebook posts, and video (p. 343).” I would put in the entire minute by minute recounting of events from 9:00 pm to 8:00 am the following morning, but it’s just too much to type. Highlights include “random Hugging of the Strangers” at 2:00 am, eating stray popcorn off the table and stealing of beer pitchers at 2:40 am, and discovering at 8:00 am that neither she, nor her liver, is twenty-one anymore. Who hasn’t had a night like this one since exiting their twenties? If you haven’t, you should. Nights like this make me glad I’m not in my twenties, and grateful that I survived them.
I love Jen Lancaster. She has never failed to entertain me. Jeneration X was not my all-time favorite of hers, (that would be Such a Pretty Fat), but it’s a solid addition to her oeuvre, and as long as she keeps writing, I’ll keep reading.