Forty-Four Candles

When It Happens to You: A Novel in Stories BY Molly Ringwald. It Books. Hardcover, 256 pages. $24.

The cover of When It Happens to You: A Novel in Stories

“How did you manage to get hotter with age?” asked a member of Reddit of Molly Ringwald earlier this year. “I drink the blood of Kristen Stewart,” Ringwald typed in reply. You could practically hear the applause.

Ringwald was doing an AMA on Reddit, the most voguish current way to promote an enterprise or identity. For the uninitiated, it stands for “Ask Me Anything,” and is usually preceded by “I Am X,” as in, “IAmA employee for the most contaminated nuclear site in the US AMA” and “I’m Woody Harrelson, AMA,” which was the most awful interaction of baffled film star and enraged audience, a real Internet landmark.

Ringwald’s AMA was the opposite of the Harrelson disaster: It went amazingly well, transforming (or retransforming) us Internet nerds into full-on fans.

Ringwald is in a weird spot, having been in the public eye for almost thirty years, while being just forty-four years old. She wants to act, she wants to write books, and she wants to perform jazz (like her father, who ran a Southern California radio show for much of her youth and founded two jazz bands). Right now she is on her second husband and her second book. Both are notable. The husband is called Panio Gianopoulos, and he is a writer, and now some kind of YA digital start-up publisher, and he was JT LeRoy’s editor at Bloomsbury—though not the acquiring editor, to his credit. Panio and Molly met when he was twenty-five and she was thirty-three. He is unnecessarily attractive. Together they are savvy.

The book is called When It Happens to You: A Novel in Stories (It Books, $25), and it reads like a book Ringwald really wanted to write. You can smell something that’s been worked on during late nights and early mornings in a Los Angeles den, while the kids are asleep. You can feel sentences worn down, one at a time, and argued about in bed. The “stories” of the novel—there are only eight, and it doesn’t really need the subtitle disclaimer—concern the terrible breakup of a marriage after infidelity, and the fallout it creates for those around the marriage. It is lusher and straighter and lighter than Play It as It Lays and far less contrived and furious than Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? and maybe owes more to Sandra Cisneros than either.

With this sort of situation, a reader tends to ask, fairly or not: How much of this is true? That’s also what’s behind Ask Me Anything—we all want to know what’s real about the lives of famous people. One character, Peter Layton, is the washed-up former children’s TV star who pranced about with a polar bear named Pooka, and is something of a ringer for the delightful Steve Burns of Blue’s Clues fame. One of the most excruciating scenes in the book occurs when Peter gets upgraded on his flight to LA as he is escaping his old life in New York; the attendants, spurning needy passengers, make him sign autographs and pose for photos. “At their urging he acted out the show’s stock phrase—‘Pep up, Pooka! Peter’s here!’” It feels perfectly stolen from a drunken dinner-party admission—and, if it’s not, Ringwald has a near-perfect ear for the humiliating fictional anecdote.

Peter’s the noncomic comic relief, even when he turns his life around.

He had just received an unexpected offer to play a small but pivotal role in a television movie that was shooting in Canada. . . . The part was of a janitor at a small women’s college who is the first victim to fall prey to a band of sorority werewolves. . . .

“I thought werewolves were men,” Greta said.

“The director has a feminist take on it,” Peter told her. “And he has a background in music video.” If he was aware of his non sequitur, he didn’t acknowledge it. He dropped to the floor and started doing push-ups.

So the central story, of the doomed marriage, is told quite brutally: It’s honest to admit that some of us will want to know from where it came. I talked to Ringwald a while back, as she was finishing her first book, a growing-up guide called Getting the Pretty Back. “Once you’ve been 40 you’ve been through a few car wrecks. And there’s a lot of interesting stuff there to examine,” she said. “But I’m not the age where I’d want to write an autobiography or anything. I’m sort of midway. I feel autobiographies should be written when you’re old.”

Well, for one thing, that’s never, because our generation will never think of itself as old, and, for another, I’ll take this newest work as fiction. If nothing else, Ringwald must have wanted to complete this book as a challenge to herself, because it doesn’t conform to the profile of most celebrity-authored titles, which are career tie-ins of one sort or another. When It Happens to You didn’t simply happen to Ringwald—it’s not a book she was obligated to produce, it’s not a bedpost notch in her career, it’s not suggestive of any personal or professional exploitation. Oh but hmm, it might option for a pretty decent movie, though.