I thought I’d managed to sidestep the purgatorial phase between college and adulthood. Immediately after graduation, a friend hooked me up with a rent-controlled apartment in Santa Monica. I’d lined up an (unpaid) internship at Ms. Magazine and a hostessing gig at a trendy restaurant on Ocean Avenue. Sure, my schedule was grueling and I lived hand to mouth, but leaning against my hostess stand, watching the sun set over the Pacific each evening with the knowledge that I’d soon be a published writer gave me solace. For a brief moment in time, it seemed like everything was going to be okay.
Then my internship ended, the restaurant went out of business, and I did the only practical thing to do: move back home to live with my father in his one-bedroom apartment in Chicago. I had managed to make it to a place that seemed surreal and magical — Los Angeles! — and then all too quickly I was back in the frigid Midwest, logging hours at my father’s jewelry/eyeglass store and mourning the loss of my freedom. I struggled to accept what I felt was a certain truth: that the rest of my life would look precisely like this. I spent an embarrassing amount of time writing in my journal in the Macy’s basement café across the street from my father’s store in an attempt to figure out how, after all my years of earnest overachieving and traveling along the straight and narrow, my life came to an abrupt halt.
I was plunged back into this early-20s limbo when reading Leigh Stein’s debut novel The Fallback Plan. The story traces the bumbling path of Esther Kohler, a young woman who fails to land on her own two feet after college graduation. With a theater degree from Northwestern and screenwriting aspirations as her only vague directives, Esther moves back in with her parents. She piddles away her days reading favorite childhood novels, smoking weed out of a toilet paper roll and palling around with two foul-mouthed man-boys lacking in ambition and basic hygiene. Other times, she’s busy making snide comments about her parents’ obsessive holiday crafting. Not even a cocktail of antidepressants and expired prescription tranquilizers can lift Esther’s ennui. Fallback plan indeed.
Temporary salvation comes in the form of a babysitting job (procured by her mother) for a handsome young couple in her neighborhood. Though Esther yeans for a “real” adult life, she enjoys being a kid again with the couple’s toddler, May. She also becomes enmeshed in the family’s personal drama and intoxicated by the adultness of it all, playing confidante to both parents: a mother haunted by the sudden death of her infant daughter months prior, and a father who seeks in Esther what he lacks with his emotionally unavailable wife. Her sudden reality – living at home and bearing the brunt of responsibility for a child not her own – falls far short of Esther’s vision of life at twenty-two: “I’d pictured a small group of brunette women who were all my best friends, and our bearded boyfriends who all hailed from Portland, in a room together, drinking red wine and discussing Brecht’s influence on Godard, or the merits of Joyce.” Esther learns the hard way that when it comes to building a life, there’s one major caveat: nothing goes according to plan. Ever.
Esther channels her angst into The Littlest Panda, a screenplay loosely based on her beloved Chronicles of Narnia. Scenes of the panda’s adventures in a Narnia-like netherworld — confronting a frosty witch, befriending a faun — are juxtaposed against Esther’s very real predicament. While these passages might read like a bad acid trip, the fantastical subplot offers levity and serves as a portal to a late 90s childhood cluttered with pop culture. The novel is so imbued with this kind of fairytale nostalgia that it initially feels cloying and overdone. The characters listen to Cat Power and Modest Mouse. They eat Twizzlers and drink Capri Sun. All of Esther’s friends are having the time of their lives like a “pre-rhinoplasty Jennifer Grey,” while she mopes in bed nursing a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch and re-reading The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.
It was at this point in the novel that I found myself despising Esther. Suck it up! I told the page. Things could be way worse than living in your parent’s cushy suburban home! Enjoy the free cereal while it lasts! Get off your overly medicated ass and get a life! Life isn’t fair and nothing comes easy! Then I pushed aside my fake cynicism and felt my eyes grow wet and warm. The truth is, I found Esther cringe-inducing because she reminded me so much of myself.
Like Esther, I grew up in the sheltered northern suburbs of Chicago, determined to make a name for myself in a creative field. I assumed it would come naturally for me because – as arrogant as it may sound – most things I set my mind to had always come easy. Today, nearly ten years out of college, I’ve learned the hard way how sorely mistaken I was then. Still, I occasionally find myself craving this poisonous elixir of ambition, entitlement and illusion. It’s tempting to believe success equals being a Somebody, and satisfaction is the same as being known. I’m embarrassed to admit I still get angry at the world for failing to deliver on an agreement it never promised to keep.
But back to the panda. Amid the moral ambiguity of real life, the black and white fantasyland becomes a place of clarity for Esther. It’s the fictional tale that draws out her very real story. While Esther does her best to strike a pose of cynical nonchalance, her vulnerability and longing are channeled, not ironically, through the panda’s surprisingly authentic voice: “She wishes there were a book she could read, a book that would tell her exactly what to do, and what to believe in.” Her constant references to novels, movies and memorabilia take on a sobering significance when nothing else makes sense.
With poignancy and humor, Stein captures the unsettling uncertainty of a time when the traditional path to adulthood is under major reconstruction. For all the talk about a “lost generation” and the plight of Millennials, there’s been a dearth of art about coming to terms with the painful misconceptions that Esther struggles to reconcile: that going to college does not equal growing up, and that getting good grades, doing all the right things and trying really, really hard does not guarantee anything. Stein’s book fills a void left by all the zeitgeist babble about spoiled recession-babies.
After spending her entire life revving up for greatness, Esther comes to a screeching halt just as she was scheduled for takeoff. Throughout the book, I wanted to tell Esther that a delayed departure is the greatest thing. When I look back at my “failure” to make it in Los Angeles, I wonder if I secretly didn’t want to succeed. Perhaps I didn’t want things to come easy. Perhaps I craved a knock down drag out fight against myself. In the later rounds of beating myself up, I realized the fight was really between who I thought I was supposed to be and who I really am. So when I moved back to LA less than a year after returning to Chicago, I left behind the girl who followed strategic plans on how to live. When I took on another round of poorly paid writing and waitressing gigs, it was without the expectation that I was trying to get somewhere. I was where I was, and really, that’s the only place there is.
Perhaps that’s also why, by the time Esther makes her own unromantic move into adulthood, I was smitten with her. Exchanging nostalgia for honesty, her character comes into focus. She drops the sad clown shtick, and her rawness and vulnerability prove more compelling than her cheap-shot humor. Here, in articulating the complex inner world of a young woman, Stein’s ability to create a protagonist who is very flawed, and very real, emerges. The Fallback Plan offers a coming of age story about replacing ideas of who we think we are for who we think we can become. Ultimately, Stein reminds us that growing up is an act of stumbling forward, and holding on to innocence can sometimes be more painful than letting go of it.