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The Breakaway


The Breakaway

Riding a bike did not come naturally to me. I learned late, could never brake properly, and was always scared of hills. So it’s ironic that I’m the person reviewing this sweetly freewheeling novel about the joy of cycling --- how it liberates a woman both literally and metaphorically. But I couldn’t resist. Summer? A new title from Jennifer Weiner? Yes, please.

Weiner, of course, is the author of 16 previous fiction bestsellers that (among other things) excoriate fat shaming and extol women’s right to live big and free. (Turns out she is also an ardent bike rider, which she got into in a big way during the pandemic and helped her brave the grief of her mother’s death.) THE BREAKAWAY, her latest, has a lot of good stuff to say about both body image and self-esteem. It’s also replete with mother-daughter epiphanies, hot sex, an eventful bike trip through New York State to Niagara Falls, and... did I mention hot sex?

"THE BREAKAWAY...has a lot of good stuff to say about both body image and self-esteem. It’s also replete with mother-daughter epiphanies, hot sex, an eventful bike trip through New York State to Niagara Falls, and... did I mention hot sex?"

Our ridiculously likable protagonist, Abby Stern, has a few issues. First, her body: “Rubenesque if you liked your euphemisms, obese if you were a doctor, fat, which was what Abby called herself.” She has learned to accept her curves, despite her mother’s obsession with thinness (she sent Abby to weight-loss camp at age 13), but fighting the diet culture has left her low on confidence. And that may be why her résumé, at age 33, reads doggie daycare employee, sometime Uber driver, grad-school dropout. Finally, there is her boyfriend, Mark, whom she met at camp and reunited with years later. He seems quite the prize: handsome and stable and doting. But he is woefully uptight about food, keeps his apartment “terrifyingly neat,” and (worst of all) doesn’t share her passion for biking. In short, Abby is a champ on her two-wheeler --- “It felt like floating. It felt like flying. It felt like she was far away from everything that hurt her” --- but feels powerless in the rest of her life. Powerless, and stuck.

Abby treasures the memory of a fantastic one-night stand two years ago in New York City with a gorgeous man who made her feel genuinely understood and appreciated, not to mention turned on. (She slipped out afterward without giving him her name, fearing rejection in the light of day. She’s had more than one boyfriend who was ashamed to be seen with her in public.) When she gets a job leading a two-week bike tour, and Sebastian, the one-night-stand guy, turns out to be among the riders, the only possible word is gulp. By now, Abby is on the verge of moving in with Mark. And yet…

Also on the trip is Abby’s mother, Eileen (a homemaker “whose real job was full-time dieter”); a quartet of eccentric oldsters who serve mainly as semi-comic supporting players, but who turn out to have a naughty secret; and Sebastian’s best friend and coworker, Lincoln. Lincoln’s role is principally as the stable, married foil for his Don Juan-ish friend, whose serial-seducer exploits are exposed and attacked on TikTok a couple of days into the trip. The complaint goes viral, and suffice it to say that for a time, Sebastian is not exactly popular with the other cyclists.

On a more serious note, a couple of families on the trip --- Morgan, a secretly pregnant teenage girl; Lily, her straitlaced, devout mother; Kayla, also a mother, but substantially more progressive; and her son, Andy --- are involved in a peripheral but deeply touching narrative involving abortion. Weiner’s emphatically feminist and pro-choice views come into play here, as well as in her decision to make Seneca Falls, New York, the 1848 scene of the first women’s rights convention, a stop on the tour. Abby quotes a famous saying from suffragist leader Susan B. Anthony: “I think the bicycle has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world. I rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a bike. It gives her a feeling of self-reliance and independence the moment she takes her seat; and away she goes, the picture of untrammeled womanhood.”

The tour ends in Niagara Falls, but don’t look for Abby to sprint toward a honeymoon. Instead, she takes a hard look at “the blank spaces in her life” and embarks on the job of filling them. Fast-forward a year: Inspired by her own experiences growing up --- a child of divorce, she credits her bike with building a sense of autonomy and self-sufficiency --- Abby has begun working with local girls in Philadelphia (which is also, no surprise, Weiner’s hometown) to teach not only cycling but empowerment.

It's a very modern happy ending, and one that I liked a lot. Admittedly, THE BREAKAWAY isn’t a suspenseful read. All Sebastian needs is a little healthy introspection about his sexual compulsions to emerge as near-perfect. And although Weiner tries to make Mark a real competitor for Abby’s heart, there are way too many red flags to leave you in much doubt about their future. It’s also quite predictable that mothers as apparently unsympathetic as Lily and Eileen will ultimately reveal a softer, more vulnerable side.

But who cares when you have a protagonist like Abby? Strong, sensuous and altogether adorable, she keeps the bike trip, as well as the novel, in high gear.

Reviewed by Katherine B. Weissman on August 25, 2023

The Breakaway
by Jennifer Weiner

  • Publication Date: August 29, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Atria Books
  • ISBN-10: 1668033429
  • ISBN-13: 9781668033425