By Beth Perry
September 26, 2005 12:00 PM

Jennifer Weiner’s novels have brought her so close to fame she can smell it. And we’re not speaking metaphorically. When she met Cameron Diaz on the Delray Beach, Fla., set of In Her Shoes, the comedy based on her 2002 bestseller, Weiner wasted no time in checking her out. “She looked so beautiful, and she smelled excellent,” says Weiner. “I phoned my husband and said, I just met Cameron Diaz. And she smells great!’ He said, ‘Please don’t tell me you just sniffed her.’ And I’m like, ‘Well,I kinda did!'”

A keen observer who was once a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Weiner herself has millions of fans who relish her bubbly tales centered around full-figured heroines. Often described as a pioneer of the chick-lit genre, she has written three bestselling novels; her fourth, Goodnight Nobody, a murder mystery set in a suburb (“It has a touch of Desperate Housewives“), is out this month. In Her Shoes, which costars Toni Collette, will hit theaters Oct. 7.

Weiner fuels her work with a down-to-earth sensibility. She may summer with her husband, lawyer Adam Bonin, 32, and daughter Lucy, 2, in wealthy Truro, Mass., but she’s lived in the same Philadelphia neighborhood for 10 years. She still writes at the local Cosí, and when she exercises—which is often—she hops on her bike or pushes Lucy in her stroller. The big difference between Weiner pre-and post-success? “We get brand-name mouthwash instead of the store brand,” says Bonin.

As Weiner tells it, fading into the background is crucial to her work. The oldest of four (mom Fran, a teacher, and dad Lawrence, a psychiatrist, divorced in 1988), she felt like an odd duck during her childhood in Connecticut, where “people were blond-haired, blue-eyed and really pretty,” she says. It got tougher when she began putting on weight during puberty. “I went on a teen tour to Israel and there were five girls named Jennifer. Of course I became ‘the fat one.'”

As Weiner struggled to make friends in school, she began taking meticulous notes about everything from what classmates wore each day to who was sitting where in the cafeteria. “The solitude helped me learn what makes people the way they are and what motivates them,” she says now.

A member of the cross-country ski team and a rower while at Princeton, Weiner stayed physically active into adulthood but remained full-figured. “I never had an eating disorder, but sometimes I think that if I liked vomiting any better, I might have,” she says. With nutritionists and diet pills, she strove for skinniness. Around 1998 she had an epiphany: “I asked myself, ‘Do I want to devote my time to weighing chicken breasts?’ Or do I want to say, ‘I’m going to be happy and live my life?'”

She chose the latter, and when she wrote her semiautobiographical first novel, Good in Bed, in 1999, Weiner’s comfort with her body was clear. So was her frustration with her love life after a really bad breakup; she’d had other boyfriends through the years, but there was no one special at the time.

It was a blind date in spring 1999 that brought abiding love into Weiner’s life. Bonin’s first impression of her? “Funny, smart, beautiful.” And, oh yes: “Comfortable in her own skin.”

While that date hasn’t made it into her novels, not many experiences are lost on Weiner; her frank yet funny discussions of body image, sex, career ambitions and family issues dominate In Her Shoes, in which Collette and Diaz play feuding sisters. Though Weiner allowed the studio to adapt the book, she insisted on one thing: “Toni gained at least 20 lbs. to play the full-figured sister,” she says. “I didn’t want her to wear a fat suit like Gwyneth Paltrow in Shallow Hal. That would have sent the signal that being heavy was a joke.”

If response from fans is any indication, Weiner’s message is taken very seriously. “I get letters from women thanking me for writing stories in which girls get what they want without having to lose a lot of weight,” she says. “I like the idea that you don’t have to fit into anyone else’s idea of beauty to get your happy ending.”

Beth Perry. Natasha Stoynoff in Truro