One of the many surprises in Molly Ringwald's "When It Happens to You" arrives somewhere within the book's first 50 pages, when you forget that you're reading a novel by an actress whose films were as much a part of your adolescence as bad hair, chronic awkwardness and reckless driving, and you find yourself wondering why you haven't heard of this writer until now. Sure, you only need to catch her name on the book's spine to be reminded that this Molly Ringwald is the same one who starred as a teenager in "The Breakfast Club," "Sixteen Candles" and "Pretty in Pink." And sure, her voice when you pick up the phone on a recent Monday morning sends you right back to the terrifying halls of your own high school, your own after-school detentions, your own goofy friends. But the Molly Ringwald who wrote "When It Happens to You" strikes you as someone entirely different. Someone you didn't even know existed.
It turns out, as these things so often do, that this has more to do with your own prejudices and assumptions than it has to do with who Molly Ringwald really is.
"Writing is something I've done my whole life," admits Ringwald, calling from her home in Southern California. "I think I'm the same person I've always been. I've just been more private with my writing."
Published in August, "When It Happens to You" is actually Ringwald's second book. The first, a bestselling memoir-cum-advice-manual titled "Getting the Pretty Back: Friendship, Family and Finding the Perfect Lipstick," was released in 2011. Writing that book, she says, convinced her that she could tackle a full-length work of fiction.
"I started a book, and I finished it," she says of "Getting the Pretty Back." "[Writing] is kind of terrifying. The fact that I managed to do that gave me a certain amount of confidence. But I really found that I was much more comfortable when I was writing stories. Writing fiction was more interesting."
Subtitled "A Novel in Stories," "When It Happens to You" consists of eight interlocking but standalone stories involving people facing various forms of betrayal. Chief among them is infidelity, and Ringwald's book begins as a husband, Phillip, reveals to his wife, Greta, that he has been sleeping with their 6-year-old daughter's violin instructor. As it progresses, the novel reveals the extent of Phillip's unfaithfulness — toward his wife and daughter, yes, but also to himself — and Ringwald wisely avoids opening and shutting the case on his transgressions. The same goes for the book's other principal characters, including a single mother who stumbles toward acceptance of her 6-year-old son's transgendered nature; a former children's show actor prone to self-sabotage; an elderly widow who loves her dead husband more than she does their living child; and Greta's mother, who attempts to have the relationship with her grandson that she failed to have with her own daughters.
"If you throw a ball in any one direction, you're probably going to hit somebody who has been betrayed or has betrayed someone," Ringwald says. "Which was really interesting to me, the universality of that. It's really something that touches people in one way or another. It's been around me, I think, for my whole life. I've experienced it on both sides, so I felt like I could write about it credibly.
"If anything, it really kind of reinforces for me this idea of humanity, and that we're just incredibly flawed and that we aren't villains," the author continues. "We make terrible mistakes, but the only way out of any of that is to forgive. It's funny because some people read the book and felt like I was saying that forgiveness is impossible, which completely confounds me how anybody could get that from the book, because that to me is one of the major themes. Every single one of the characters is betraying [someone], and every single one of them is attempting to forgive themselves or the other."
Ringwald herself seems willing to forgive those people who harbor skepticism that a Hollywood actress, especially one who is best known for her work in 1980s teen comedies — albeit the best of their time and genre — could produce not just a novel, but a literary novel as masterful as "When It Happens to You."
"Being an actor didn't get in the way of writing the book or publishing the book or having the book do well, so I think I'm OK," Ringwald says with a laugh. "People are going to think whatever. I feel like being an actress in some way, you know, I can't deny that it opens doors, but then it sort of closes doors in terms of people's preconceptions. I feel like I just chose to have the work speak for itself. If I didn't feel like it met a certain standard, I just wouldn't have published it."
Molly Ringwald will appear 11 a.m. Nov. 18 at the Miami Book Fair. Go to MiamiBookFair.com.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times