Simon Pulse, 2011
review by Tessa
Chelsea Glaser / Elizabeth Connolly: Revolutionary war reenactor, 2nd generation. Still heartbroken over her ex,
Ezra Gorman: who decided to also work at Essex Historical Colonial Village this summer, along with
Fiona Warren: Chelsea’s best friend, superb actress, and partner in becoming an ice cream expert.
but right across the street there’s
Dan Malkin: Civil War reenactor (2nd generation), cute, easy to get along with, and off limits to Chelsea.
The war between the junior interpreters of Colonial and Civil War history is nothing compared to the war that Chelsea is battling in her brain as she tries to get over her ex-boyfriend, who broke up with her almost 3 months ago for no reason. But Chelsea has just been named Lieutenant in the Reenactor war, so she has to focus. And when she does, she meets someone who just might be right for her. Too bad he’s fighting in the wrong century, and therefore is Chelsea’s sworn enemy.
Chelsea Glaser’s dad is a silversmith. He works at Essex Historical Colonial Village, so Chelsea’s childhood was one marinated in the very essence of American colonial history. This summer she’d like to get a job outside of the late 1700s, but her best friend Fiona has convinced her that it would be more fun to work together in the Village. Unfortunately, it looks like her ex got the same idea, so Chelsea is stuck with a reminder of her heartbreak all summer.
The War is a good distraction, or so Chelsea thinks. Right across the street from Essex is Civil War Reenactmentland. They also have teenage summer “interpreters”, and they just won a prestigious award for the authenticity of their reenactment site. Every summer there’s a prank war between the two groups of junior interpreters, and this year is going to be the most heated yet, because the General for this year’s war on Essex’s side is Tawny Nelson, senior, historical nut, and tough warrior. She promises to totally show up the farbs at Civil War Reenactmentland, striking at their claims of authenticity, which is the paramount concern for anyone working in the field of historical village-ing.
“Farb is a terrible thing to call a reenactor. My dad says it’s shorthand for far be it from authentic, but in the War, we just use it to mean that a reenactor is sloppy in his historical details. Or we use it when we just don’t like someone.”
Unfortunately, the War gets off to a bad start for Essex. Just when Chelsea has been elected Lieutenant of the War, she and Tawny get kidnapped by Civil Warriors. Strangely, Chelsea finds herself flirting with the guy meant to be guarding her. He’s cute. And she hasn’t noticed anyone’s cuteness since she was dumped by Ezra.
Chelsea’s problem is that she can’t tell her best friend about the new guy, because he’s from the other side, and she can’t really vent about Ezra, because Fiona’s heard it all and she wants Chelsea to move on. Chelsea wants to do right by Essex, but Essex insists on emotionally torturing her. So her summer becomes one of all kinds of conflict.
What is this book’s intention and is it achieved?
Past Perfect is less a romance and more of a breakup book, a portrait of how Chelsea gets through the last throes of her attachment to Ezra and learns how to be better to herself. Sure, there’s a romance in there, and the crush that Chelsea has on Dan is an integral part of the plot, but it’s not the point of the plot. Past Perfect passes the Bechdel Test, happily. And that’s what makes Past Perfect such a realistic and satisfying story.
Plus, Chelsea is _funny_.
“‘Why did you guys break up? If you don’t mind my asking.’
I didn’t mind Dan’s asking, exactly, but I also didn’t know how to answer him. I had never known why Ezra and I broke up, though I had thought about it, of course, thought about it until I drove myself–not to mention Fiona–crazy.
To just come out and ask Ezra why seemed like it would give him too much satisfaction. So it ended and I don’t know why. So what? So many things come to an end–dinosaurs, my mother’s garden, British Colonial rule. Who knows why? Who would care enough to ask?”
And as you can tell from that quote and from the description of the plot, there’s a lot of fun to be had with the setting of a historical village. And this book has two. It’s like the fertile setting of summer camp, only weirder and with more at stake, and with more outside connections between the characters.
So we get exchanges like this, when Chelsea’s parents have found contraband Civil War uniforms in Chelsea’s closet, part of a plan to infiltrate Reenactmentland. But she can’t say that because the War is a secret and no adults can know about it. So it turns into a terrible/wonderful parody of an argument where a child has chosen a college that is not that parent’s alma mater, or something:
“‘Chelsea, do you want to stop reenacting the Colonial times and start reenacting the Civil War?’ Mom asked, and I could hear in her voice that no question could pain her more. […]
‘No!’ I protested.
‘Denial,’ Dad noted, gung ho about staging this intervention. ‘You’re sixteen years old, and that’s mature enough to make your own decisions, some of the time, but in this instance your mother and I both feel that you’re making a serious mistake. Which war fought for equality and democracy, the foundation of our society? Meanwhile, which war had casualties exceeding the United States’ losses in all our other wars combined? Which document do you hear quoted more often: America’s Declaration of Independence or the Southern States’ Declarations of the Causes of Secession?’
Okay, whoa, attack of the rhetorical questions!
‘Who’s pictured on the penny?’ Dad went on. ‘Abraham Lincoln! Who’s pictured on the quarter? George Washington! A quarter is worth twenty-five times as much as a penny, just as the American Revolution is worth twenty-five times as much as the American Civil War!’
‘Oh my God,’ I said. ‘Dad, do you have porphyria or something?’
Next to me, Fiona was shaking with silent laughter.”
Thus I can wholeheartedly recommend Past Perfect if you’re looking for a funny book, a book with real female friendships, a good light romance, and a startlingly nuanced portrayal of heartbreak and how to let go of it. Which leads me to my
which is that when I put this book on hold all I remembered about it was fact that it had to do with historical reenactment as a summer job, and that that sounded like a nice light summer read. Also, at that point I had a boyfriend. By the time it came in for me on hold at the library, I had been broken up with and found out that the book was really about a breakup. I kind of wanted to avoid reading it for that reason, but it ended up being just the right mix of funny, sweet, and sad. So it helped me get through the initial really tough period of being dumped. Does this mean my heartbreak is on the emotional level of a teenager? I don’t think so. Rather, I choose to believe that Chelsea’s struggles are more universal than that, and less shallow than the drama that gets dredged up and passed off as important adult emotion on reality dating shows.
And, Rebecca, take note: Leila Sales did gymnastics for 8 years. So you should read her books.
An Abundance of Katherines / John Green
Also about getting over a breakup, also about nerdy but socially functional people and finding new levels of friendship. I originally doubted this book before I had heard about John Green solely because both of its covers suck. Someone get this book a good cover. It’s now my favorite John Green book.
Both of these collections of short stories have offerings set in historical theme parks. One is a caveman theme park and one is Civil War themed, obvs. George Saunders will make you laugh and cry SO HARD. You can read an excerpt of Pastoralia here.