"There are other Jennifer Weiners in the world, and I will sometimes get their emails,” the author Jennifer Weiner confesses by Zoom from her home in Philadelphia. “It happened last night actually. I always feel so terrible. Because it’s such a terrible name. It’s like, I mean... Weiner”—pronounced like whiner, she emphasizes. “I’m always just like, who are these poor other women?”
That question is part of the inspiration for Weiner’s new novel, That Summer, due out from her longtime publisher Atria on May 11. The book begins with one woman receiving emails meant for another woman with a very similar email address. Eventually an effusive “SORRY!!!” arrives, then they have a follow-up conversation and an IRL drinks date in New York City.
The two women are both named Diana, though one goes by Daisy. One lives on Cape Cod, the other in Main Line Philadelphia—and, it turns out, they really like each other. But there’s more than an email coincidence at work, and far greater stakes, including a painful secret that must be revealed so each of them can become whole.
“I was thinking about ‘the road not taken’ and ‘the grass is always greener,’ ” Weiner says, “and women with kids looking at single friends and being like, ‘Oh, man, does she have the life,’ and single friends looking at married friends and being like, ‘Oh, I want what she has.’ ”
That Summer goes on to tackle #MeToo, with one of the main characters in search of a reckoning after a sexual assault during her youth and the other needing to confront truths she’s been oblivious to for far too long.
Initial pieces of That Summer were written in 2018, as Brett Kavanaugh was being questioned by the Senate Judiciary Committee over allegations of sexual assault. During those hearings, Weiner—who is now 50 and is married to the writer Bill Syken—was struck by the appearance of the future Supreme Court justice’s wife, Ashley Estes Kavanaugh. “She looked glassy, like glaze,” she recalls. “Like a bomb has just gone off and your ears are still ringing. I just wondered, ‘Okay, somebody married this guy and had kids with him. This man has daughters and he coaches their basketball team. So what’s it like to be Mrs. Brett Kavanaugh?’ I thought about what a wife like that would see and what she would choose to look away from.”
The author credits her own daughters—17-year-old Lucy and 13-year-old Phoebe—as additional impetuses behind the novel, not to mention ground research for Daisy’s teenage daughter, Beatrice, who’s not afraid to stand up for what she feels is right. “I think a lot about what it was like for me as a young woman in my teens, in my 20s, navigating the world, and what it’s going to be like for Lucy and her sister,” Weiner says. “Have we come far enough? The deck is stacked against women in so many ways.”
Weiner explains that, at the start of the #MeToo movement, she mentioned to her husband casually that “every woman has a story like this.” For her, it was the older waiter who harassed her when she was a 16-year-old bus girl at a restaurant. “I don’t think I had thought about it at all until Lucy was talking about applying for summer jobs,” she says. “That was when I was like, ‘Oh shit, that happened to me. Probably something like that is going to happen to her at some point, because it’s happened to every woman I know.’ ”
Weiner has made it part of her job to challenge stereotypes and gender biases in publishing, including the inherent sexism in the term “beach read”—a phrase that, she wrote in a piece for Entertainment Weekly in 2019, she’s “tried to make peace with”—as well as the way the literary community has all too often promoted white male writers while diminishing the efforts of women and people of color.
Writing for the New Yorker in 2014, Rebecca Mead called Weiner an “unlikely feminist enforcer,” perhaps because she’s such a marvelously prolific success story. Her novels feature heartwarming humor, romance, female friendship, and pleasurable journeys of escape. But they also tackle issues like sexual assault, fat shaming, and postpartum depression.
“All of my books are sort of a balance between heavy and light,” Weiner says. “There’s some big issue that the heroine is grappling with, or there’s some family stuff or societal stuff or whatever stuff, but there’s also funny things, like a drag queen named Heavy Flo—which, if I ever do drag, that is going to be my drag name.”
After she graduated from Princeton, Weiner worked as a journalist before shifting to full-time book writing following the success of her 2001 debut, Good in Bed. That novel now has more than two million copies in print, according to Atria. To date, she’s written 14 novels, a few children’s books, an essay collection, and a short story collection. Atria says she has more than 15 million books in print overall, and, according to her agent, she’s been on the New York Times bestseller list for 258 weeks, or nearly five years, throughout her 20-year career.
Weiner has also been a favorite in Hollywood, with her 2002 novel In Her Shoes made into a 2005 movie starring Toni Collette and Cameron Diaz. Her 2019 novel Mrs. Everything was optioned by the production studio Sister and is currently in development as a TV series, and, last year, it was announced that Mindy Kaling will produce and star in an adaptation of Good in Bed for HBO Max. And, never one to waste time, Weiner has also been a contributing opinion writer at the New York Times since 2015.
Weiner’s previous novel, Big Summer, which came out in May 2020 and was described by Good Morning America as the “perfect quarantine read,” actually began a series she’s continuing with That Summer. She calls it her “little Cape Code trilogy,” since each book is “at least partially set on Cape Cod,” and she’s working on the final installment now. Weiner has a personal connection to the area: her parents used to rent a two-bedroom cottage on the bay when she was young and, as an adult, she purchased her own summer house so she could return each year with her family.
Writing That Summer became, in some ways, her pandemic escape, Weiner says. Stuck at home in Philadelphia, she started thinking longingly of Cape Cod again. The best way to return to it? Set another novel there.
“It was just wanting to write a place that I love and dogs and food and all that good stuff, and falling in love,” Weiner recalls. “The Cape’s amazing and it’s beautiful and it’s special. And I want to make readers feel like they’re getting to experience some of that.”
But writing is about more than simply entertaining, or at least, in Weiner’s eyes, it should be. At the same time that she was immersing herself in a world of escape, she was struggling over what her role should be in helping others during a global health and political crisis. “It’s like, what’s my job right now? What am I supposed to be doing right now with my talents such as they are?” she asks. “It’s a hard question.”
That Summer was Weiner’s answer. “I can tell you a story and I can hopefully entertain you and transport you,” she says. “But I can also say to you, ‘Hey, look, we got some stuff to deal with in America.’ Because I think that even in the midst of escape, you can’t ever get away from what the world is serving you. And if what I’ve written helps one woman somewhere in the world feel more visible, feel more recognized, feel more seen and more at home in her own skin, then I have done my job.”
Jen Doll is the author of the YA novel 'Unclaimed Baggage' (FSG) and the memoir 'Save the Date: The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest' (Riverhead).