Jennifer Weiner bikes and talks about her novel ‘The Breakaway’
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Jennifer Weiner bikes and talks about her novel ‘The Breakaway’

Jul 04, 2023

Not many people can churn out novels like Jennifer Weiner does. Since 2001’s “Good in Bed,” she has delivered a new book almost annually, many of them bestsellers. But it turns out there’s something else she does well and quickly: biking.

That much is clear on a recent Saturday in D.C. The humidity is hovering around 88 percent, but Weiner, 53, cycles along at a steady clip on her Trek touring bike, telling me about her 15- and 20-year-old daughters and her L.A.-based siblings, chatting so easily, she could be curled up in an armchair.

“This is nice,” she says. I can just hear the pleasant surprise in her voice over the sound of my labored breathing as she takes in the leafy green explosion of Rock Creek Park lining a carless Beach Drive. It’s quickly becoming clear that Weiner is one of those people — you know the ones — who looks so effortlessly comfortable on a bike, it might as well be part of her body.

Weiner’s new novel, “The Breakaway,” which comes out Tuesday, combines her old love of writing with her more recent love of cycling. The story follows Abby, an adrift 33-year-old who’s hoping that, while leading a two-week bike tour from New York City to Niagara Falls, she might solve some of her most confounding dilemmas, namely whether she should marry her sweetie pie of a boyfriend, Dr. Mark. Unhelpfully — or is it? — “Mr. Bachelorette Party,” a one-night stand named Sebastian who still haunts her dreams, ends up on the tour; as does Abby’s mother, Eileen. Mom and daughter have had a fraught relationship at least since Eileen sent Abby to Camp Golden Hills, a “fat camp,” when she was 13.

Abby has had her ups and downs, but she could always count on cycling. It has been a sanctuary from the moment her father let go of the back of her bike seat and she realized she wasn’t going to fall. On the contrary: “It felt like floating. It felt like flying. It felt like she was far away from everything that hurt her.”

The cover of the book, a portion of which adorns the jersey Weiner wears, features a woman biking along a serpentine road. This is apt, given our own winding path, including one wrong turn — my fault, not Weiner’s, though she quickly gets us moving in the right direction — which leads us to breakfast and many iced coffees at a diner where a horrified waitress takes one look at our dripping, flushed faces and asks, “How far did you go?”

How to tell her, between mopping our foreheads with paper napkins, that we haven’t been at it that long? In fact, we haven’t gone nearly as far as Weiner is used to.

One of her favorite rides, “a big ol’ day,” stretches 70 miles from her home in Philadelphia. The destination is Atlantic City, and the feeling of accomplishment is immense. “There’s a moment where you come around a bend and you see the Atlantic,” she explains, imagining herself there, “and you see the casinos in the distance and you see the boardwalk, and that’s the finish line. I’m almost there.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Weiner does her best thinking while moving, and she has a hard time sitting still to write unless she has done some form of exercise. So when the pandemic started, she rediscovered biking — sometimes as part of the Bicycle Club of Philadelphia — during the era of social distancing.

But when Weiner’s mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in March 2021 and died just two months later, biking became about something more vital than movement; it became a coping mechanism.

How far does one have to go to outrun their grief? At first, Weiner would bike 20 miles or so, and that kind of distance would exhaust her enough to stop her brain from whirring, at least temporarily.

“But, like with anything else, it takes more and more and more to get to that place,” she says. “So then it’s like 30 miles, 40 miles, 50 miles, 60 miles. And I don’t think it ever got unhealthy, but I was definitely aware of the fact that there’s going to come a day where I can’t ride anymore, like the sun’s going down and it’s cold out here.”

When it came time to write another book — and for Weiner, it’s always time to write another book — her fixation became part of the plot. Not only was it a tribute to her mother, who taught Weiner and her two daughters to ride, but it also reflected what had become such an important part of her existence.

“I knew I wanted to write about biking, because that was my life at that point,” Weiner says. “I was going on all of these bike rides and hearing all of these great stories and seeing all these characters. And a bike trip felt like a good vehicle: You start someplace, and you end someplace else.”

The novel, too, contains some real characters, including two older couples with some randy inclinations. But the most memorable may be the two sets of mothers and daughters whose bonds have been strained by unreasonable expectations and toxic secrecy. Eileen has been on Abby’s case her whole life to lose weight. At one point, Abby wonders “if Eileen would have actually preferred an anorexic daughter to a fat one.” Meanwhile, 37-year-old Lily, who’s married to a preacher but taking the trip solo with her 15-year-old, Morgan, doesn’t understand why her daughter has become so weepy and taciturn. Answer: She’s pregnant and terrified that her conservative, Christian parents will make her keep the baby.

If keeping up with Weiner on a bicycle is a challenge, so is reading about the myriad ways moms can alienate their girls. Except, as the story goes on, it becomes clear that these mothers are hardly villains.

“Every parent does the best they can with what they have,” Weiner says. “The problem is, what they have a lot of times is trauma and damage and bad messages in their heads.”

As she so often does in her novels, Weiner complicates the narrative with dashes of nuance — villains can be victims, even a man who’s publicly shamed on TikTok as a #KissingBandit — while ensuring that the characters we care about land on their feet. “The Breakaway” also reiterates a message Weiner has delivered before: A woman’s weight doesn’t dictate her probability of getting a happy ending. That’s a common thread in many of Weiner’s novels, and it’s a conscious choice. When Weiner was coming of age, a plus-size character’s arc nearly always involved shedding pounds.

“All I had growing up were the Cinderella stories,” she says. “The Judith Krantz books where the character weighs 217 pounds — I will never forget that number — and she goes to Paris and loses 80 pounds. And I’m like, ‘Who goes to Paris and loses weight?’”

It was a well-received act of resistance when Weiner began writing the books she wanted to read.

After all, while Abby has her problems, her size has no bearing on how funny, capable and intelligent she is. She can ferry a group of misfits across hundreds of miles with authority, and, more impressively still — at least for this reader — she can change a flat with ease.

Weiner admits that while she, like Abby, knows how to change a tire, it’s a time-consuming process. She’s nothing if not self-sufficient, but she also isn’t shy about asking for, or getting, help.

“What I have found is that, as a woman, if you stand in front of your bike and look clueless, a man will come and fix it for you,” she says. Sometimes, she explains through laughter, multiple men will stop to help, then argue over how to do it right. “On one hand, I feel bad that I’m playing into sexist tropes, but on the other hand, if you want to change my flat tire for me, I’m going to let you.”

Luckily, we don’t have to test her theory. The biggest challenge ahead of us is getting back on our bikes with full bellies and stiff muscles. The temperature has climbed higher still as we make our way back the way we came, but Weiner gets right back into the groove. The woman on the cover of her book is headed up a hill and around a hairpin turn, but the author who invented her is sailing along.

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