How could Pride and Prejudice be adapted to reflect the reality realevision craze? Those intrigued by this question may consult Imperfect Bliss, a comedic examination of class and celebrity by Susan Fales-Hill. The escapades of the Harcourt family of Maryland will keep readers turning the pages.
To her chagrin, recent divorcee Bliss Harcourt is once again living with her parents. She cares for her young daughter Bella, pursues her doctorate at Georgetown University, and laments the antics of her mother and two younger sisters. Harcourt matriarch Forsythia is obsessed with emulating British royalty and suppressing her Jamaican heritage. Second-youngest daughter Diana is starring in The Virgin, a reality show chronicling her quest for a husband. Upset because she is not featured on the program, youngest child Charlotte is living for attention from the opposite sex. In comparison with these three, Bliss’s father and eldest sister are paragons of sanity. Harold, an English transplant, buries himself in scholarly pursuits and tolerates no one except Bliss, his favorite child, and Victoria, his firstborn. Celebrated for her beauty and composure, Victoria hides deep concern over her inability to love the men she dates.
The Virgin disgusts Bliss, as does its womanizing creator Dario Fuentes. But while Bliss berates Dario, Bella takes to him immediately. For a “bodybuilder-boardwalk Romeo,” Dario is surprisingly sensitive to the child’s diplegia, a condition that hinders her walking (30). Bliss and Dario clash repeatedly, first over his familiarity with Bella and then over Bliss’s certainty that he is a chauvinist opportunist. What will Bliss do if she learns there is more to Dario than meets the eye? Meanwhile, Diana settles on the three suitors who can offer her the most fortune and notoriety. But how can any of them please her when she always wants more? At the same time, a video of one of Charlotte’s trysts comes to light. Will it give her her long-desired taste of fame? Finally, pressured by Forsythia, Victoria agrees to marry a wealthy ex-boyfriend she doesn’t love. Miserable, she seeks support from Bliss and from an old school friend who is disillusioned with men in general. Will Victoria muster the courage to find her own happiness?
Fales-Hill’s depiction of Bella is a bright spot in Imperfect Bliss.Bella is a charmingly regular little girl. Readers first glimpse her in her mother’s room, surrounded by pictures of civil rights advocates but completely focused on her Cinderella gown. Though she doesn’t resist Bliss’s lessons about women’s strength and independence, Bella remains enthralled with Barbie dolls and Disney characters. That said, she is also what her mother calls a “little toughie” (3). Bella’s diplegia doesn’t discourage her. She picks herself up when she falls and is unafraid to try dancing and ice skating. Satisfyingly, Bella’s sense of wonder and trusting nature sometimes wear off on Bliss, who can be cynical and judgmental. While in Vienna, the two spend time enjoying sugary treats, marveling at the snowfall, and taking a carriage ride with Dario.
Fales-Hill also deserves credit for adding nuance to Forsythia, who often veers toward caricature. One the one hand, Forsythia is a woman who, to gain prestige, named all her children after English princesses and queens. She is devotee of wigs, false eyelashes with rhinestones, and anything else that will help her daughters attract wealthy men. On the other hand, Forsythia is a hardened survivor of years of racial prejudice. She grew up in British-ruled Jamaica, where she was called “Chocolate drop, black bird, [and] tar baby” and was likely familiar with poverty and violence (250). Living in America with her white husband, she was mistaken for her family’s hired help. To prove her worth to herself and the world, Forsythia courts wealth and social status. By pressuring her daughters to marry for money and prominence, Forsythia tries in her misguided way to shield them from the deprivations and humiliations she suffered. She is trying to be a good mother.
The underdeveloped characters in Imperfect Bliss are the novel’s chief shortcoming. Dario plays a crucial role in Bliss’s and Bella’s personal growth, but readers learn only a few details about his history and mindset. Diana’s excesses pervade the book. But the only glimpse into her mind is her assertion that no one will discount her as Harold discounts Forsythia. As the last child, Charlotte is also the most overlooked one. But she never discusses her feelings about her parents, whose disregard drives her into the arms of unsuitable men. Finally, there is little indication of the inner turmoil that changes Harold’s disinterest in his youngest children’s misbehavior into self-reproach for not preventing it. Fewer plotlines in the book (there are four, one for each sister) might have a fuller treatment of these characters. But all the narratives grab readers’ attention, and Fales-Hill provides plenty of insight into Bliss, the book’s heroine.
Imperfect Bliss is suitable for fans of lighthearted, fast-paced Pride and Prejudice variations. Fales-Hill’s spoof of the reality television phenomenon also touches on the more serious subjects of history and race. The result is a different, humorous, and occasionally thought-provoking Austen reimagining, one that is a suitable companion for readers enjoying the last days of summer.
4 out of 5 Stars
Imperfect Bliss, by Susan Fales-Hill
Atria Books (2012)
Hardcover (304) pages
Lucy Warriner is a North Carolina animal lover and dance enthusiast. She is also an ardent admirer of Jane Austen.
© Lucy Warriner, Austenprose