Leigh Stein’s “The Fallback Plan”

Leigh Stein’s new novel, The Fallback Plan, is the quintessential story of the generation now graduating from college, the boomerang generation some might say, i.e. my generation. Twenty-somethings everywhere will read about, if not directly their own lives, the lives of many of their friends, back at home and feeling stagnant, depressed, lonely, you know the drill.

Stein captures perfectly in protagonist Esther Kohler the self-obsessed college grad now trying to join “the grown-up world” but lacking the know-how to do so. College teaches you many things, but Esther realizes after graduation that it is no complete replacement for real-world experience, for dealing with the complexities and conundrums that life throws at you. She says it directly:

I’d always thought that if I completed the right steps, in the right order, each next step would magically reveal itself to me, like the blink of a lightning bug, or the glint of a skein of gold spun from straw. I got good-enough grades, I got into a good-enough school, where I got more good-enough grades, I made the plays, I graduated. I had learned so much – how to drink imaginary hot coffee, the definition of chlorofluorocarbon – and yet I was prepared for nothing.

Esther’s after-graduation goal is not to become an actress or a teacher or really anything. Her goals are no more lofty than sitting on the couch re-reading favorite childhood books, which, when faced with reality, seem awfully appealing. Her parents, of course, want her off that couch and in the world, and so volunteer her as a babysitter for a neighborhood family. Things get complicated, though, as Esther becomes entangled in the family’s murky emotional affairs, including the questions around the loss of their youngest child, just an infant, six months earlier. 

Esther, like all of us, defines her life with pop-culture references, which anyone will recognize is the thing our generation does, at all times. What pop culture you know is as important as what clothes you put on in the morning, as it prescribes what kind of person you are and what kind of person you want to be. Esther’s covers the gamut from formative children’s books to random movies, hit 90’s songs and video games. She has opinions about everything, in the way that we all like to pretend we know what we’re talking about when we talk about anything. We can say all the right lines, but at the end of the day we believe it because it is easy, other people think it and in this Internet age there are too many things to have opinions about (although we will try).

I loved Stein’s book because it is about Esther Kohler, specifically, but in general, it chronicles the lives of all of us recent or soon-to-be grads. I read about Esther but I also read about myself, in similar circumstances (i.e. living at home with my parents), stumbling a bit after the momentous college graduation, frightened by the large void that is life. It’s either sink or swim at this point and Esther realizes:

I had been waiting for something monumental to happen to me in my life and now saw that nothing was ever going to happen. This was it.

That sounds like a downer, I know, but Stein balances every heavy moment with humor. Her style is a mixture of depression and hope that characterizes our generation’s attitude at this point due to the fact that our lives are not filled with greatness and life turns out to be just a lot bit harder than anticipated. Our parents, too, thought that following the “right” steps could lead you on the “right” path, thereby skipping over any hardships or complications. Now the honeymoon period has come to an end, which is actually alright, but we’re going to need some adjustment time.

Ultimately Stein reminds us that life still grasps you and teaches you a thing or two. Even if you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward, to the side, diagonally, or who really knows which way you’re moving! The bottom line is that we’re always moving, changing, growing and we’ll find our stride soon enough.

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