Once in a while, a book comes along that punctures the romanticism of childhood in a cruel yet necessary way. The Fallback Plan is not that book. Leigh Stein’s debut novel envelops all that postgraduates fear: their parents, their future, and themselves. Stein’s laughably gratifying account of coming home again breeds both familiarity and embarrassment. The story, set in a cicada shell-littered suburb of Anywhere, America rehashes the boredom and subsequent anxiety that befalls the young and unemployed. Written with contagious wit, Fallback brings light and humor to a circumstance so often considered dim. The pressing possibility of not so much living at home, but dying a slow, QVC-fueled death on your parents’ futon, fuels the book’s hilarity.
Esther Kohler, the author’s projection of all who struggle with getting dressed before noon, is the story’s clumsy heroine. A recent theater graduate, Esther reveals herself as a charming, hot mess:
“Dad, can I borrow the car tonight?”
“If you put some pants on,” he said.
She adjusts to moving back in with her parents while facing the seeming immutability of idleness. Rereading her favorite childhood stories and indulging in diabetes-inducing Cinnamon Toast Crunch provide a tenuous catharsis. Her ambivalent mind has agreed to disagree with accepting her spirit-sapping routine (primarily snacking and smoking in no particular order). Other hobbies include creeping knee-deep in the Facebook chronicles of her peers:
Ximong is being John Malkovich!
Melissa is work 10 – 6, class 7 – 9, drinkssssssss!
She experiences the pangs of abandonment as her peers run off on family-funded Eurotrips in the hopes of experiencing weird cheese platters and threesomes. Early on, Esther admits that she’d rather contract a chronic illness and wallow in the “blameless freedom” that comes with it.
The author’s descriptions of mild hypochondria and chronic boredom are somehow portrayed as endearing qualities rather than afflictions. Esther indulges in a rampant imagination that is usually reserved for young children. Or therapy. Like watching a car hit the only other static object in a parking lot, Esther’s actions are oftentimes painfully hysterical. “I took a Vicodin I found in the medicine cabinet, left over from when I had my wisdom teeth out, and tried to tame the wild shrubbery of my hair with gelatinous goop.”
Initially, Esther’s only outlets for social stimulation are her friends from home. You know them. They’re the one’s who stick to you like lint under your armpit. And they possess the vocabulary and temperament of attention deficit third graders. For Esther, it’s either drink liquor from a plastic container with them or stay at home and teach her parents how to copy and paste on the computer. Stein notes the obliviousness so typical of parents who’ve felt they’ve done all they could to support their child. And their insensibility is laughable and almost cute.
Thanks to her mother’s smothering concern, Esther lands a babysitting gig that pays just enough to be considered legitimate. Stein’s amusing commentary is gradually peppered with subtle flecks of darkness. As a babysitter, Esther is invited into her neighbor’s home to bury cicada shells with her new best friend May, a four year old. Esther, awkward since birth, finds the lucrative side of playing dress up eventually clashing with the embarrassment of being privy to intimate, family knowledge. Esther describes Amy, the child’s mother, as “an artificial plant, something that needs nothing.” Amy, distant and a bit crazed after the recent death of her infant, finds solace in Esther’s company. Eventually, Amy’s searing candidness becomes too big a burden for this twenty-two year old whose original plan was to collect disability off a nonexistent illness. During the duration of Esther’s time as a babysitter, Amy is consumed by a secret project in the attic. A Shyamalan twist? Hardly. Once revealed, Amy’s preoccupation becomes too much for Esther to handle. Warning to all babysitters: nine dollars an hour does not warrant family counseling.
In the meantime, Esther grows dangerously close to May’s father, Nate. As it turns out, nothing spoils reliving childhood like watching a marriage hemorrhage. With little effort, Esther finds herself acting as the lifeline for the family that employs her as they all come to depend on her.
While she never asked to be a confidant, Esther handles the job with delightfully bold clumsiness. Stein finds a way to lighten Esther’s moments of dark realizations with sarcastic inner dialogue. The story never becomes too burdensome because of Stein’s strategic humor. Her style favors comedy in between moments of fleeting optimism.
In the end, Stein keeps her protagonist dynamic as she evolves beyond her immaturity. Overcoming the inertia engendered by the gravitational pull of her inexperience becomes Esther’s prime motivation. She exits her childhood with plucky optimism. And some Vicodin.