The Perfect Elizabeth

by Libby Schmais
I picked this up on a whim because the title intrigued me and the book was on sale at Chapters for about $5. The jacket blurb starts with “This modern-day Sense and Sensibility is a witty story about two sisters: Liza, a would-be poet who spends miserable days as a legal secretary; and Bette a graduate student writing her dissertation on Toast in the English Novel.
Naturally, I figured this was the perfect book for me.
It turns out the only perfect thing about this book is the second word of the title. Granted, I finished the book in two sessions, but only because it pissed me off so much that I couldn’t sleep, so I kept reading.

What’s wrong with it? Where do I start?
Well, first of all it’s not the tale of two sisters, it’s the tale of one sister and her obsession with the other sister’s life. To make matters worse, the point of view is that of the legal secretary sister, Liza, whose life is mundane and ordinary, but which she manages to angst-up to melodramatic proportions.
Furthermore, the focus for both sisters seems to be not whether or not they will ever find professional/academic/creative fulfilment, but whether or not they will ever truly understand their respective men and be able to build a dream relationship with such imperfect mates. Bette, the academic sister who’s purportedly researching a dissertation on Austen and Pym, inexplicably drops her entire career to fly off to L.A. to be with her man, an award-winning pool designer. Naturally, her co-dependent sister follows her out there, only to discover that she’s a natural-born writer, and manages to accidentally sell a story to an animation studio.
In other words, plot-wise, I don’t buy it.
What augmented my negative reaction to this book was the use of the 1st-person present tense narrative. This style is becoming the new voice of New York writers – viz The Devil Wears Prada and The Nanny Diaries, both of which I found equally contemptible. I think there is some part of me that just cannot accept a present-tense “I”:

My parents work in the garden. I go over and look at them. They are engrossed in their separate activities. My father is working on a stone wall. My mother is busy also, weeding relentlessly in the hot sun…
“You’ve been doing a lot of work,” I say.
My father nods. “That’s what I do.”

Maybe it’s just the English teacher in me, but argh!!! Her parents do not work in the garden, they are working in the garden – her mother is a professor and her father an analyst.
But I digress.*
Suffice it to say that I definitely do not recommend this book, unless you want to read it so we can bitch about it together. If you enjoyed The Devil Wears Prada and/or The Nanny Diaries then chances are you will enjoy The Perfect Elizabeth. If, on the other hand, you found the first two insipid, poorly written, misleading and generally best suited to start fires with on a cold winter’s night, then steer clear of The Perfect Elizabeth.
*Yes, I am aware that these blog posts are typically written with a present-tense “I.” Piss off.

5 Replies to “The Perfect Elizabeth

  1. 5$ well wasted? Did I tell ya I won tickets to see the preview of The Incredibles” last week? Lots of fun – do go with the kiddies.

  2. Also recommended is the book titled (I hope) “The mysterious incident of the dog in the nighttime”. Don’t remember the name of the author but the book great fun.

  3. As a former English teacher, I sympathize with your distaste for present-tense “I,” although I don’t believe I ever had to contend with it in students’ essays. Just as well–“If I would have gone” constructs, along with subject-verb agreement abuses and pronoun-abuse brought on enough teeth-grinding to get me through. Then there were the increasingly present its/it’s confusions, etc., ad nauseum.
    One memorable student chose to relate old family memories this way: “Every Sunday we would drive to see my grandparents in ____. When we would turn onto the tree-lined, narrow road, I would sniff the fragrant blooms and. . . .” Perfectly good choice, you say? Not when the entire essay was written that way! Not for me! Give me a good past tense, at least some of the time! The student didn’t buy my perspective, but what can you expect from a young lady who burst into tears when I pointed out spelling errors?

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