The Fallback Plan
(Melville House, 2012)
Leigh Stein’s debut novel The Fallback Plan plumbs the Weltschmerz of lost innocence with a splendid mix of seriousness, imagination, and deadpan humor. In the present-day world of quick answers—“What will your life be like in 20 years? Click here to take the quiz and find out!” as one of the chapter titles reads—Stein’s narrator reckons with her irreclaimable childhood.
The narrator wants to “relive the precious ordinariness of all those days [in her childhood she] never knew [she] would miss.” And as is the case throughout this novel, it’s often when simplicity collides with complexity that we see the author at her best: At a doctor’s appointment she “[wants] to see a map of [her] brain and an arrow pointing to what was wrong with [her].”
Despite the plot of The Fallback Plan languishing at times, as the narrator struggles to accept that “the happiest years of [her] life in photo albums are the years most missing in [her] memory,” Stein keeps the scenes alive with her witty dialogue and the exceptionally well-rendered four-year-old character of May, who’s responsible for spurring most of the narrator’s realizations. “I was the one who wanted to regress to some Eden, claim a second childhood by using May as my ticket.”
And in a way the narrator does experience aspects of her childhood, for, like most young Americans, her fallback plan is to move back in with her parents after college. Yet, this move also allows her to glimpse adulthood for the first time, and the duality of this situation is a big reason why Stein’s book is so interesting.
The trend of young Americans returning home after graduating college is unprecedented—an estimated 85 percent of the 2011 U.S. college class*—and the ideas that emerge in The Fallback Plan for why this is occurring seem right on. Besides not having a job, the narrator is “relieved to live at home because there [are] so few expectations.” There’s also the narrator’s need to “use [her] grim imagination as a preventative measure in the face of the random universe.” In comparison to the memories of childhood, the adult world is ugly, and perhaps more unclear than ever. Stein seems to suggest it takes time to prepare oneself for the possibility that “no one ever [grows] up to be noble and brave and wise.”
Though only 26-years-old, Stein might be an exception to her own rule.
* Harper’s Index, August 2011.