Jane, the 18-year-old narrator of Jean Kyoung Frazier’s debut novel Pizza Girl (Doubleday, 2020), is not excited to be pregnant. Her back is aching and she’s spontaneously barfing and she’s still working as a pizza delivery girl at Eddie’s. She’s also depressed, struggling with low self-esteem, and grieving the death of her abusive, alcoholic father. She met her boyfriend Billy—the father of her child— in grief counseling, and now Billy, whose parents died in a freak car accident, lives with her and her Korean mother in their Los Angeles home.
Jane aspires to be a good partner, but almost every night, when Billy is sleeping, she sneaks into the shed where her father used to smoke and drink, and she drinks and watches television infomercials. She is fairly remorseless about drinking while pregnant, but if this is beginning to sound excessively dark, fear not. Pizza Girl is a poignant coming-of-age story that will break your heart and make you laugh. Think Juno meets Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Frazier knows how to balance hilarity and sadness, when to be acerbic, and when to devastate the reader with her narrator’s private thoughts and feelings. She also knows how to write lucid, piercing sentences. She is immensely talented.
Pizza Girl is about what happens when Jane answers a call from a harried, stay-at-home mother, Jenny, whose eight-year-old son wants a pepperoni pizza with pickles on it. (He won’t eat anything else.) Because Jenny sounds desperate, Jane drives to the grocery store, buys a jar of pickles, and asks the kitchen to make a pepperoni-and-pickles pizza. Jenny is so grateful that she isn’t even upset when Jane, upon arriving with the pizza, runs from the entryway into a closet she thinks is a bathroom and pukes into a shoe. “You doing this favor for me is proof you’re going to be a great mom,” Jenny tells her. Jenny is warm and generous, even though she is exhausted and obviously struggling with the demands of motherhood. Jane immediately likes her: “She smiled and I wanted to bottle it up, pour it over my morning cereal.”
When Jenny calls Eddie’s a week later and asks for another pickle-covered pizza, Jane can hardly wait to make the delivery. She has been thinking all week about how Jenny made her feel. This time, when Jane arrives with the pizza, Jenny invites her to a support-group meeting for new and struggling mothers. Jane isn’t eager to meet with a group of women in a church basement, but she agrees to go because part of her believes her life would be different if she hadn’t quit grief counseling. “What if those meetings were it?” she asks in the first of many wrenching passages. “What if those meetings would’ve saved me? Maybe if I had kept going to those meetings I would’ve learned all the answers to all the questions I had. Like: Where am I going and how do I get there? What have I done and what will I continue to do? Will I ever wake up and look in the mirror and feel good about the person staring back at me?”
If Jane was interested in Jenny before the night of the support-group meeting, she’s infatuated with her afterwards. She thinks constantly about the conversations they’ve had together, masturbates in the shower while thinking of her, and drives by her house to catch a glimpse of her. She thinks she’d like to grab Jenny’s ponytail and “rub [it] over [her] eyes, ears, nose, and mouth.” She contemplates what “pepperoni and pickles taste like on her tongue” and imagines Jenny’s breath: “meaty and sour.”
Jenny, however, seems to treat anyone who helps her—her mail carrier, her accountant, her hairdresser—with the same level of care with which she treats Jane. Jenny is garrulous, the kind of person who calls a pizza restaurant and asks, “Have you ever had the kind of week where every afternoon seems to last for hours?” She appreciates Jane’s help—who else will deliver a pickle-covered pizza?—and tips her well to show it, but she doesn’t admit that Jane is her friend even after several meetings. Jane is just “pizza girl.”
And yet Jane never appears foolish for having a crush on Jenny. Jenny might not share Jane’s feelings, but she is able to comfort Jane when no one else can. “It’s good you’re not excited,” Jenny says upon discovering how Jane feels about her pregnancy. “Or it’s good you know you’re not excited. People will always love telling you how you’re supposed to be feeling, and it will always make you feel less than when you don’t feel it.” Jane’s mother can’t offer this kind of consolation. She thinks Jane just needs some ginger tea, a cure for pregnancy pain. She’s almost completely oblivious to Jane’s emotional pain.
In the end, Jane makes some decisions that are so ill-advised the reader can only gape in astonishment. Jane survives these decisions, but to say this novel has a happy ending wouldn’t be quite right. Jane is shaken by the consequences of her choices, but she doesn’t seem to become a more well-adjusted person. She is just more awake to the fact that, with a baby growing and kicking inside her, she has no choice but to make the leap from one phase of life into another. She must become a mother whether she’s ready or not. And so the denouement is neither triumphant nor depressing—it’s truthful and cautiously redemptive. Jane drives to the liquor store, but instead of asking the homeless guy out front to buy her a six-pack, she drives away with her hand on her belly and tries to start talking to her daughter. “Her name was Jenny Hauser,” she says. “And every Wednesday I put pickles on her pizza.”