"The Miss America Family"
(Reviewed by Karma Sawka APR 22, 2002)"I'd always wanted to be Miss America so that I could have the perfect family. Who else would eventually be the perfect American wife and mother other than Miss America? She'd eventually become Mrs. America, right? In being the perfect wife and mother, I could erase my mother, my father, my brother and me and start over, proving that there was higher ground, that I'd built it, and that I could reign over it. I could erase my childhood by perfecting someone else's. This is a tragic flaw in thinking, I know now. But I wanted to have the Miss America family-that's what I called it-with a husband named Steve, one son and one daughter, Troy and Wendy...And so I got married. It's what people do."
This is the driving force behind Pixie Stocker in Julianna Baggott's second novel, The Miss America Family. Told in alternating narrative between Pixie and her 16-year-old son, Ezra, this tragic yet hilarious novel goes to the dark corners of dysfunction in a family where the image of perfection covers up the secrets nearly every family member harbors.
Beautiful Pixie grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey with her mother, father and older brother, Cliff. Her father is frequently absent, her mother is angry and bitter toward her father and toward the church, and her brother is angry enough to look forward to going to Vietnam to kill. Pixie remembers vaguely that she was raped by a stranger one night in her bed, and that her father intervened with a baseball bat, a memory that comes back to her in her dreams over and over like the memory of her father's death. She vowed that she would become a beauty queen in order to escape the sadness, disappointment and estrangement of her family, with hopes of starting a perfect family and ensuring the happy childhood of a child of her own.
She does become Miss Bayonne, and eventually marries a man who is not - what a relief to Pixie! - as interested in sex as most men seem to be. After a few years they have a son, Ezra. But after Ezra's father is found in bed with another man, Pixie leaves him and goes into survival mode in order to take care of herself and her son. She becomes a sort of self-made whore, making money on the beauty that men have always admired in her. Finally, she meets Dilworth Stocker, a dentist, a man who can offer her the prestige to build the perfect family that she has always coveted. Never mind that she never does love Dilworth and it's all a facade.
Ezra comes home from prep school to find that his beauty queen mother, normally purposefully put-together, is beginning to fray at the edges, something that only he can recognize. Ezra and Pixie have a strange and strong mother-son bond in that they feel that they know one another better than anyone else possibly can. Pixie especially feels this way, saying that Ezra has known her from the beginning - the beginning of when she became independent and a survivor.
The summer escalates from Pixie's peculiar unraveling to a final bullet-roaring climax. Baggott seems to be telling her readers something that Pixie does not yet understand: no matter what kind of exterior you build for yourself, the buried secrets, frustrations and suppressed memories will always come bubbling up through the cracks. Ezra and Pixie take turns telling their sides of the story, and begin each chapter with a rule to live by or a tip for maintaining composure and normalcy, another hint at the importance that these characters appear as if everything is just fine.
Anyone who enjoyed Girl Talk should enjoy The Miss America Family even more. In fact, if the two books are read consecutively, Girl Talk, which stands by itself as a complete novel, begins to feel like a draft or a preparation for The Miss America Family. The two books have such similar themes and images; perhaps Baggott is either writing from her own personal experiences or simply wasn't done exploring those issues in her first book.
Both stories involve absent fathers, rape, mothers who prowl around the house at night, unable to sleep, connections to Bayonne, New Jersey, and fish imagery. (In Girl Talk, Dottie's father is a fishmonger; in the second novel, Pixie's mother has a theory of creation where some people are derived from Adam's rib, like the church tells us, but some people, including herself and her relations, are descendants of fish.) Although the two novels are so similar in theme, and utilize a combination of angry sadness and sarcastic humor to tell their tales, The Miss America Family is a much fuller and richer work. The reason could be the advantage of having two narrators. In Girl Talk, we only know the daughter's point of view and every one of the mother's stories are remembered and told through the filter of her daughter. In The Miss America Family, we are treated to two running perspectives on what is amiss in the Stocker family.
Julianna Baggott has captured the dysfunctional middle-American experience in both of her novels. I look forward to seeing what comes next, and hope that she will allow her craft to stretch and explore newer themes within this experience.
- Amazon readers rating: from 15 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from The Miss America Family at MostlyFiction.com(back to top)
(Reviewed by Karma Sawka APR 22, 2002)
"For the first time, I thought of my mother as a girl like me, as still being that girl, only older, that I would age but be the same person that I was right then lying next to my drunk mother."
Lissy Jablonski, a 30-year-old New York advertising executive, has recently discovered that she is pregnant by her married ex-lover. Crying, upset, wishing to be rescued, she opens her apartment door to Church Fiske, her childhood friend and the boy she lost her virginity to. Lissy considers the possibility that Church is the man she has always loved, deep down, and that, even though he is irresponsible and immature, he will be the perfect solution for her unexpected pregnancy. Lissy quickly snaps out of that dream when Church marries her ex-roommate, a stripper at the Fruit, Cock, Tail, after knowing her for just a few days. What he is, though, is the catalyst to bring back memories of the summer that never was the summer when 15-year-old Lissy met Church, discovered that her father ran off to Arizona to have an affair with a red-haired bank teller and learned the secret stories of her mother's life. The summer her mother, Dottie, told her to forget ever happened, so Dottie could gloss over any cracks in the enamel of her American dream life.
As Lissy tries to piece together her future with an impending baby, she thinks back to that summer when she and her mother, recently abandoned by her father, drive away from their perfect American home to stay with friends and sort things out. First they stay with Church's family, the matriarch of which is Dottie's college girlfriend and an experienced divorcee. Dottie goes to her friend Juniper hoping for some advice or solidarity. Rich and refined yet constantly sedated, Juniper isn't able to help Dottie after all. Next, the Jablonski women drive to Dottie's hometown, Bayonne, New Jersey. This bittersweet and revealing section of the book also contains some of the more hilarious memories. Dottie finds her way to Ruby and Dino, an aging Italian couple, friends of Dottie's when she was young. Ruby, a woman who totters around the house on silver high heels, and Dino, who is probably connected to the mob, fuss over their guests and treat them like the daughter and granddaughter they never had. Lissy finds herself taking euchre lessons and watching Ruby tease her mother's hair and outfit her in leopard print leggings. But in Bayonne Lissy also learns the truth about her paternity, finds the mysterious Anthony Pantuliano - the love of her mother's life - and loses her own innocence.
I was hoping that I would have a lot to connect with in this book, since I'm about the same age of the heroine and I was a teenager in 1985 when the summer that never was, was. Baggott has her teenage heroine shopping for paisley shirts at The Limited, listening to The Smiths on the radio and pegging her jeans, but those were the only 80s references that my radar picked up on.
Girl Talk is an interesting study in mother/daughter relationships. At times dark and heartbreaking, this quickly read story also has its share of laughs. Grown-up Lissy is an acerbic, intelligent and witty narrator, highly aware of the psychology of advertising and selling the American dream - she relates how American society, through advertising, connects the scent of lemon to a freshly scoured kitchen to the love of a mother - and the unrealistic expectations people have of themselves and their families.
- Amazon readers rating: from 66 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Girl Talk at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Girl Talk (February 2001)
- This Country of Mothers: Poetry (March 2001)
- The Miss America Family (April 2002)
- The Madam (September 2003)
With Steve Almond:
- Which Brings Me to You (April 2006)
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- Visit the official Julianna Baggott Web site
- Poems by Julianna Baggott
- Writers Write inteview with Julianna Baggott
- Reading Guide for Girl Talk
- TeenReads.com review of Girl Talk
- Southern Illinois University Press review of This Country of Mothers
- The Austin Chronicle review of The Madam
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About the Author:
Julianna Baggott received her MFA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 1991. She has published dozens of short stories and poems in such magazines as The Southern Review, Chelsea, Poetry, and Best American Poetry 2000. A recipient of fellowships from the Delaware Division of the Arts, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Ragdale Foundation, and Bread Loaf Writers Conference, she won the 1998 Eyster Prize for short fiction.
She lives in Newark, Delaware, with her husband, poet David G.W. Scott, and their three children.