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'The Breakaway' explores how society impacts a woman's relationship with her body

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Jennifer Weiner's books have become synonymous with sand in your toes, a beach breeze and a bright-blue ocean, both in the content and the experience of reading them. Her newest novel, "The Breakaway," trades the beach for New York's Empire Trail, and the heroine is spending her days on a bike. But the themes Weiner has committed to throughout all her novels are still very much there. "The Breakaway," like Weiner's books before it, explores how a woman's relationship with her body, how a woman lives in her body is influenced by society's rules and expectations. Jennifer Weiner joins me now. Welcome.

JENNIFER WEINER: Hey.

SUMMERS: First of all, I should just say I loved this book. I think I started and finished the whole thing in a day. And reading it, I started wondering, are you a biker?

WEINER: Yes. Yes, I am a biker. I shove myself into that Lycra. I look like a hot-pink sausage. I get on my bike, and I go. Yes.

SUMMERS: What do you love about it?

WEINER: So, much like Abby, who is the protagonist of "The Breakaway," I grew up in a suburb. I learned to ride as a kid, and that was my freedom. That was my independence.

SUMMERS: I should just say, before we get into this conversation, that I am nothing like Abby. I just bought my first bike as an adult a couple of weeks ago and...

WEINER: Oh, yay. Good for you. Yay.

SUMMERS: I'm trying my best. I think my childhood experience was confined to a couple loops around a cul-de-sac, so certainly not taking myself much of anywhere. But, Jennifer, I want to start by asking you to tell us a little bit about Abby.

WEINER: OK. So Abby Stern is the lead character of "The Breakaway." She is a plus-size woman who is more or less living happily in her body or trying very hard to. She has sort of the classic almond mom who monitored every bite of food she put in her mouth, sent Abby to fat camp when Abby wanted to go to drama camp and has maintained a certain degree of influence as Abby has grown up.

SUMMERS: And, I mean, in the story, you've managed to weave in so many things, both in terms of the moment we find ourselves in in this country surrounding reproductive rights, the post-pandemic or new wave of the pandemic, but you also dig really deep into the relationships between moms and daughters and the weight of expectations. And there are two mother-daughter relationships that are really central to the story. And I wonder if you can just start by telling us a little bit about Abby's relationship with her mother, Eileen, who ends up cycling along with her on this tour that Abby's leading.

WEINER: Yes. OK. So Abby gets a chance to lead this bike tour along the Empire State Trail, which runs from New York City all the way up to Niagara Falls. And then, much to her shock and dismay, her mom shows up on this trip and says, honey, I just want to spend time with you, which is not what Abby wants at all, especially because another surprise participant on this trip is this guy she spent this, like, one hot night with many years ago and never thought she'd see again. And there he is. So we've got the two of them with all of this really fraught history about food, about body, about expectations, about how does a woman live happily in the world and what's going to give her the most choices, the most options.

And choices and options are a big theme that moves through "The Breakaway" and has a lot to do with our second mother-daughter pair, which is Morgan and Lily. And Lily is an evangelical Christian from the Midwest, and her daughter, Morgan, is a teenager who is pregnant in post-Dobbs America and does not want to be and is desperate to find a way out of the situation without letting her mother know and, she thinks, breaking her mother's heart.

SUMMERS: I mean, thinking about the character of Abby for a second, the thing about her that I was drawn to is the fact that she is happy with her body. She's at peace with her fatness. She is confident in her athleticism, her ability to cycle. And you, from her vantage point, write about fatness in such a positive way, both in terms of her internal dialogue and the way that her body and her size do not become a wedge in her romantic relationships. Can you talk about how you wrote about that?

WEINER: Yeah. OK. So there's a famous quote from Toni Morrison, and she said, if there's a book you need to read and you can't find it on the shelf, it is your job to write that book. And I took that very seriously. As a larger woman, I always wanted stories where the fat girl wasn't the funny best friend, wasn't the butt of the jokes and didn't have to lose a hundred pounds before she got the guy and the happy ending. I wanted to write about the women I was seeing in the world who were fat and strong and beautiful and powerful and had great jobs and loving relationships because those were the books I needed when I was 14 and 15 and 16 years old. And those are the books I want my daughter's generation to have - the books that say that your happy ending is not contingent on your dress size.

SUMMERS: I don't want to get too personal, but you've mentioned that you're a mom of daughters. So I do want to ask you - throughout your books, and particularly this one, you have been such a strong voice for body positivity and women's rights and living exactly as you are on your own terms. Do you ever find yourself vulnerable to the sorts of pressures that we see the mothers in this book experiencing in your own parenting?

WEINER: I think that any woman who lives in the world and has her eyes open and takes in media and social media - like, you can't help sometimes falling prey to it. And I've got days where I sort of look at myself in my biking shorts. And biking shorts do not flatter anybody...

SUMMERS: No.

WEINER: But still - still, I'm just like, oh, God, like, really? Really? You know, and it's just - it's a question of, like, what do I as a novelist do with that information? And I guess my answer has always been like, let's push back on it. Let's show that there are possibilities for women that do not involve weight loss as an avenue to happiness.

SUMMERS: Yeah. I mean, the other revelation is that each of these women, they learn a secret about their moms that changes really everything that they thought they knew about them and the way in which they walk through the world. I mean, what were you trying to say about that relationship and the way that outside forces pressure women to act in a certain way, to choose certain things?

WEINER: The rise of the almond mom, that was something that sort of has happened in the last couple of years where everybody on social media is talking about these mothers who count out how many almonds they're going to have for a snack, right? And they eyeball everything their daughters eat. And, you know, lots of judgment about the almond moms - but then there was sort of a pushback, and people were saying, hey, let's remember these almond moms came from somewhere. Like, they probably had SlimFast moms who, you know, made them feel all kinds of ways about their bodies.

And I guess that's what I was thinking about is sort of - why are they the way they are? Like, what has happened to them? What have they seen? What have they done? What have they survived that shaped them? And I think every woman has seen something, survived something, internalized something that maybe makes her act the way she does toward her daughters, where her daughter is just taking this as, like, you know, this is judgment, or this is somebody who's rigid, somebody who just doesn't understand, someone who doesn't see what I'm going through. And the truth is, these moms, they have been through it themselves.

SUMMERS: Jennifer Weiner is a novelist and columnist. Her newest novel, "The Breakaway," is out today. Jennifer, it's been a pleasure. Thank you.

WEINER: Oh, this was fantastic. Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Megan Lim
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.