Esther Kohler, protagonist of Leigh Stein’s The Fallback Plan, has just graduated from college and moved back home. The drama degree she worked so hard to obtain (even suffering a psychotic breakdown in an attempt to become Blanche from A Streetcar Named Desire), has yet to help her obtain a real job. When her mom gets Esther a gig babysitting a neighbor’s young daughter, Esther is unwittingly placed in the role of “adult,” forced to face “some untidy truths about adult life.”
While playing babysitter to little May, Esther must also act the part of confidante to May’s mother as she slides into a more complicated relationship with May’s father. As much as Esther wants to “grow up” and leave her childhood home, she also wouldn’t mind “a chronic illness that would entitle me to monthly checks from the government, tender sympathy from my loved ones, and a good deal of time in bed…” Walking head-first into the troubles of the adults closest to her does not exactly make Esther run for the hills, but neither does she put up the most valiant of efforts to change her life or anyone else’s. She’s not an unlikeable narrator (in fact she’s quite funny, and consistently self-deprecating), but she’s not out to win any merit badges either.
Stein’s book is light-hearted, even in its darkest moments, and often laugh-out-loud funny. Its dual plot line feels unnecessary (a cutesy re-telling of Narnia with a baby panda meant to represent Esther’s own experiences), but these sections are easy enough to forgive within the larger, entertaining narrative. The Fallback Plan isn’t the most profound coming-of-age story ever told, but it remains honest throughout.