If you’ve ever been asked what you want to be when you grow up well after you’ve graduated from college, if you’ve ever found yourself living in your childhood bedroom as an ostensible adult, or if you’ve ever just wondered what those experiences might be like, because you were so together, I direct you to the wonderful novel The Fallback Plan by Leigh Stein.
At the center of the novel is Esther. She finds herself a college graduate with no plans for the summer – or after that. After a lifetime of academic and artistic achievement, Esther wrapped up her college career on a disconcerting note that threatens to set her adrift. At first, Esther views her return to her parents home as a temporary setback – one that will surely be overcome in short order. A description of Esther heading out on the town with old friends nicely captures her veneer of optimism:
We walked outside with the bravado of soldiers during peacetime.
The veneer soon wears off. Esther sinks into despondency and begins to imagine possible avenues out of her parents’ home into the world at large. She imagines herself beginning a career as an author, and she pictures her first screenplay as a retelling the Chronicles of Narnia with pandas in the roles of the Pevensie children. Things are not looking good for Esther’s future prospects.
Esther eventually has a job thrust upon her by her mother in an effort to shake her from her sleeping-in cereal-eating funk. She becomes a nanny/babysitter for the cool young couple that she had met at one of her parents’ neighborhood parties. The family has been recently shaken by a tragedy that upends all of Esther’s expectations of what a hip, “together” household can be. Over time, Esther comes to realize that “adults” don’t hold some mysterious keys to succeeding at life either.
On a bike ride through the neighborhood, Esther reflects:
I’d always thought that if I completed the right steps, in the right order, each step would magically reveal itself to me…I got good-enough grades, I got into a good-enough school, where I got more good-enough grades, I made the plays, I graduated. I had learned so much…yet I was prepared for nothing. I didn’t know how to shift bicycle gears.
Slowly, it becomes apparent that Esther may have begun to shift gears on her own life. Through trial and error, and a healthy dose of failure, Esther begins to become prepared for life.
Slacker novels have been around since at least Holden Caulfield’s day, if not earlier. What is rare, as far as I can tell, is a the placement of a young woman as the anti-hero. Welcome, ladies, to the slacker fold. Leigh Stein’s Esther is a memorable character and The Fallback Plan is a welcome addition to the coming-of-age canon. I recommend checking it out.
Leigh Stein wrote a coming-of-age syllabus for Bookforum that I think highlights some of her inspirations for The Fallback Plan.
She also prepared Electric Literature’s January Mixtape.