On Phoebe Fine’s list of coping mechanisms, list-making ranks near the top. She fills a notebook with lists of palindromes, favorite orchestral works, “worst dates ever,” and “Ten Reasons to Continue Living” (though she only comes up with seven). So when she packs her emotional baggage, unplugs her electric violin, and hops on a bus back to suburban New Jersey, she naturally numbers her reasons for leaving Manhattan. Some of her excuses are legitimate—New York is off-puttingly filthy, and her mother is battling cancer. But the real reasons for Phoebe’s flight are the unhealthy relationships detailed in the first volume of Lucinda Rosenfeld’s Phoebe Fine Chronicles, What She Saw . . . (2000), itself an expanded, itemized list of “worst dates ever.”
Rosenfeld nails the depressing details of Phoebe’s second childhood in a hometown that was bad enough the first time around. But she kids Jersey because she loves it, and in Why She Went Home she suggests that a temporary regression to parental care can be a legitimate exit on the parkway that leads to maturity. This is a tough line to sell, but Rosenfeld pulls it off, if only because Phoebe’s city life, with its water bugs, coke dens, and cat-sitting jobs, is so dismal. If getting by in Manhattan forces Phoebe to live only in the future, going home to the burbs is a way to confront and escape her past and start living in the (shabby but comfortable) present. Phoebe takes her newest admirer’s advice to heart: “Gotta keep moving forward, even if you end up in the same place, just like the earth does every three hundred sixty-five days.”
That she also takes to heart the man in question (one Roget Mankuvsky) is harder to swallow. With his caveman manners and stonewashed jeans, Roget is so thoroughly and vividly repellent that Phoebe’s giving him the benefit of the doubt seems desperate, not mature. As the self-loathing heroine learns to love herself, one can’t help thinking she also deserves a lover who treats her a little less “like a mild irritant” (to borrow a phrase from What).
Why is both a sequel and a stand-alone work, referencing What enough to provide continuity, but never at the risk of confusing new readers or boring old fans. Like the first novel, Why is both funny and affecting, thanks to Rosenfeld’s keen ear for the “strings of clichés” and “blatant failures of language” that dog most relationships. Its conclusion, however, is artistically justifiable only in light of the earlier installment—on its own terms it feels unconvincing and abrupt. If only Phoebe had included “To stop dating assholes” on her list of reasons for going back home.