The “it” of Molly Ringwald’s fiction debut is betrayal, and the narrative unfolds around how the characters process it in various forms. Her “novel in stories” centres on the dissolving marriage of Greta and Phillip, and the consequences for their six year old daughter, Charlotte. As a novel, When It Happens to You would be described as unfocused. However, by framing it as a novel in short stories, Ringwald is able to toe the line between the two forms, exploring the space between. This latitude allows her to delve into the stories of secondary characters whose lives serve as important counterpoints to those of her main protagonists. For the reader, the treat is beginning each new chapter with the expectation of discovering the connection to the central story.
While infertility and infidelity are the particular trials of Greta and Phillip’s relationship, the secondary characters reveal the many other ways in which it is possible to fail at love. Especially poignant is the story of Betty, an elderly widow who had an incredibly happy marriage, but was unable to spare any love for her unplanned daughter. This serves as a sharp and telling contrast to the story of Marina, who has rarely had a long term relationship, but loves her own unplanned child fiercely, even as she struggles with how best to deal with Oliver’s gender identity crisis. However, the fascinating lives of the secondary characters threaten to upstage the gut-wrenching normality of the story of a marriage threatened by infidelity. You have probably heard Phillip and Greta’s story before, but Betty, Peter and Marina offer the reader a glimpse of Ringwald’s potential to deliver a unique narrative.