When It Happens to You by Molly Ringwald

17th Dec 2012


When It Happens to You is about how nothing is isolated and everything is connected, via a series of interlinking stories that all connect in some way to the central characters, the Parris family.

Greta and Phillip Parris have been together since college and they have a six-year-old daughter, Charlotte.

When Greta finds out that Phillip has been having an affair with Charlotte’s violin teenage violin teacher, the couple separate.

The remaining stories, whilst predominantly not primarily about Greta and Phillip, examine the fall-out from their separation.

The most interesting stories are those in which Greta and Phillip feature the least. ‘My Olivia’ takes a look at Marina and her son Oliver, who has play dates with Charlotte.

Oliver identifies as a girl, even at the age of six, and Marina struggles to know how far to ‘indulge’ him in his desire for girl’s clothes and activities.

This is an area which needs sensitive handling and Ringwald gives it just that. It does, however, feel as if Oliver and Marina deserve more pages than they are given, especially as they have to share some of them with Phillip.

 ‘The Little One’, about Charlotte and Betty, the Parris’ elderly neighbour, starts promisingly. Betty was married to Harry for over fifty years and struggles to accept that, now he is dead, he is really gone from her life. Charlotte Parris starts appearing in Betty’s garden and slowly the two build a tentative relationship.

Betty is a retired college professor and has a sharpness of tone which, coupled with her refusal to indulge Charlotte’s occasional petulance, is a refreshing change from some of the whining elsewhere in the book. The story has a certain closure but, again, it feels as if Betty had much more to say.

The main negative is the fact that the novel keeps returning to the two least interesting characters. Ringwald has a good eye for the complexities of relationships, but it’s hard to care about Greta and Phillip. The former is almost unnaturally controlled and calm whilst the latter is self-pitying.

The story where Ringwald’s writing most comes alive is, fittingly, the titular ‘When It Happens to You’, a short stream of consciousness narrative by Greta.

The emotion that is oddly absent from the rest of the novel seems to have all been channelled into these six pages and the result is an eloquent and powerful message to the girl who broke Greta’s marriage.

When It Happens to You is a quick read which has an original structure and some promising scenarios, but it suffers from a superficiality and slight shallowness which, together, prevent it being truly memorable or satisfying.

When It Happens to You is out now in hardback from Foyles, Amazon or your local independent bookshop. A Kindle version is also available for £5.99.

Rating: 3/5

Recommended for: Anyone curious about the literary skills of a Brat Packer;  anyone who wants a(nother) novel about relationship breakdown.

Other recommended reading: For another novel in stories, try A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan; for a very different take on separation, try Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

Sarah Chapman