Past Perfect by Leila Sales
Simon Pulse, 2011 (Currently Available)
Genre: Contemporary Realistic Fiction
Face Value: Ok, no. This is not acceptable. Publishers of Leila Sales’s books, we need to have a talk. This is great content you have going here. Seriously! These books are smart and it’s funny and it’s clever and realistic and about real girls with real problems who deal with them in real (if sometimes slightly wittier) ways. And yet what you’re selling is something totally stupid. Here is what Past Perfect is about: teens working as junior interpreters at historical reenactment villages; friendship; dating; the complexities of how we see/perceive/remember our first loves; ice cream. Here is what Past Perfect is not about: A girl in a raincoat closing her eyes and sticking her tongue out to catch imaginary chalk drawn raindrops. THERE ARE NO CHALK RAINDROPS IN THIS BOOK! THERE ISN’T EVEN ANY RAIN AND IF THERE WAS, CHELSEA WOULD HAVE TO BE WEARING HISTORICALLY APPROPRIATE RAIN GEAR LIKE A BONNET OR SOMETHING.
I think what makes me particularly upset about this cover is that this book has so much good cover potential! I mean, there’s a ton of great content. And the whole concept – Modern Teen Working at Colonial Reenactment Village – there’s SO MUCH to work with! Especially when you add in the war with the Civil War Reenactment Village down the road. I can just picture it. Publishers – please take note and come up with something fabulous for the paperback release. I am begging you.
Does it Break the Slate? Yes! Chelsea’s journey is profoundly realistic. A whole lot of girls are going to empathize with her, because who can’t identify with the feeling of not being over a relationship that ended before you wanted it to? And though she’s a little short-sighted at times, and hung up on all the wrong things, I couldn’t help but cheer for her as she grew up and got over Ezra over the course of the book. Her ability to grow up and start to see her first real relationship for what it really was is absolutely Slatebreaking. And, of course, for the times when she starts to doubt herself into a sulky, non-Slatebreaking hole, everyone should have a best friend like Fiona who can drag us out of it.
Who would we give it to? Leila Sales is a relatively new author, and I think she’s about to get a big fan following over the next couple years if she keeps writing books like these. She would be first on my list to hand to a reader who’s fond of Meg Cabot and Maureen Johnson and is looking for similarly well written yet lighthearted contemporary romance +. Or someone who really likes The Gilmore Girls. I find myself pretty confident that Leila Sales watched The Gilmore Girls.*
Review: The history nerd in me was in love with this book before I even got past the description on the dust jacket. As I alluded to before, this book is the story of Chelsea Glaser, who has been working at Essex Historical Colonial Village since she was a kid – her parents both work there full time. She wanted out this year – at 16, she can finally get a normal job at the mall – but her best friend, aspiring actress Fiona, talks her in to one more summer. Of course, as these things go, Chelsea’s ex-boyfriend Ezra (who dumped her, and she’s not over, as much as she might say she is) ends up working at Essex too. As Chelsea gets caught up in the war between the junior interpreters at Essex and the junior interpreters at the Civil War reenactment village down the road (yes, really, and it’s as awesome as it sounds) she finds herself falling for someone else (a Civil War interpreter, no less!), even if she’s not quite ready to let go of her feelings for Ezra.
This book is truly funny. And it’s funny in my favorite kind of way, with side comments and sarcastic jokes that feel like only a slightly heightened version of the way real teens talk. I thought this about Sales’s last book, Mostly Good Girls, as well, that these girls are characters who walk the line between the girl I wanted to be in high school and the girl that I actually was. Chelsea’s wry observations made me laugh out loud.
“Are you Felicity?” the girl finished bravely, squinting into the sunlight to see my face.
“Nay,” I said. “My name is Elizabeth Connelly.” I curtsied.
The girl looked confused. “I don’t have that doll.”
“I am not a doll,” I said with a laugh. But this chick wasn’t laughing.
“Mama, why don’t I have an Elizabeth Connelly doll? she demanded with a scowl.
“We’ll get you one at the gift shop,” her mother promised. “They do have those at Ye Olde Shoppe, right?” she asked me, pronouncing it like Ye Oldie Shoppie.
I cleared my throat. “Well, Elizabeth Connelly isn’t a doll. She isn’t, er, an American Girl.” When I can’t think of what to say while reenacting, I say “er” instead of “um.” For some reason I believe that “er” sounds more authentically Colonial. I don’t know why. This is probably not true.
The fact that I would unabashedly love working as a reenactor at Essex Colonial Village might also have had something to do with how much I liked this book. And when Chelsea and Dan start to get together and share romantic moments while trading barbs about which time period, Colonial or Civil War, is better, I could not possibly have been happier.
Chelsea loves the past, but throughout the book she has to come to the realization that there’s more than one way to remember history, whether it’s the American Revolution or her relationship with Ezra. Chelsea’s so caught up in being sad over the end of her relationship that all she can remember is the good things. She’s not inventing memories, but she’s choosing which parts to remember. She looks at a picture taken of the two of them sledding and remembers how much fun it was, but doesn’t remember the ways Ezra was kind of a jerk about the whole thing leading up to it. She tells us
“For a moment, we were perfect. I hadn’t made up any of that memory. His arms really had wrapped around me, I really was pressed back against his chest, the wind really did feel so clean and pure. When we hit the bump at the bottom of the hill, we fell off the sled together and tumbled into the snow, landing softly with his body on top of mine, pinning me down. I was laughing and gasping for air, and he said, ‘that is possibly the shittiest sled a person could own’”
How many of us have memories like this? It’s easier to remember only the good (or sometimes only the bad) things about certain times in our lives. These memories aren’t lies – but they aren’t the whole story. It’s not all that different than the way history books get written. Like Chelsea’s dad tells her, in a terrifically written scene where they talk about history, truth and Thomas Jefferson:
“They’re both just stories, just different lenses through which you can view the same man. We tend to choose the rose-colored lenses, because they make everything prettier. History is written by the victors, and the victors want to make themselves look good. Who could blame them?”
As you can probably gather, while she’s working her way through her personal history, Chelsea gets pretty down on herself and defines herself via her relationships for awhile. Luckily Fiona is there to talk some sense into her. We should all be so lucky to have this kind of friend – someone who will indulge our sadness and let us cry, but be there to talk some sense into us when we need it. Fiona’s no pushover either – she gets justifiably angry with Chelsea for keeping secrets from her. And she’s the one who finally tells Chelsea what she needs to hear. I love this passage, and I think it’s so incredibly relatable to anyone ending a fist meaningful relationship:
“Let’s get real: You weren’t actually scared that I was going to tell everyone about you dating a Civil Warrior. What actually scared you was getting over Ezra.”
“That’s riddiculous,” I said. “All I have wanted for months is to get over Ezra. You know that.”
“No. All you have wanted for months is for Ezra to come back to you. That’s a completely different thing. You don’t want the pain of missing him, sure. But you want to get rid of that pain by getting him back, not moving on. You’ve been keeping yourself as this perfect little museum of what you were so that it will be easy for him to come back to exactly what he left behind. And you’re scared to admit that you’re into this new guy, because then you’d really have to deal with life after Ezra”
Harsh? Maybe. But this is the kind of harsh that sometimes we need to hear from our friends, and Fiona is definitely a girl to have around in a crisis situation.
This is a lighthearted book, a quick fun read that will probably fly off the shelves. But alongside the snappy dialogue and kissing angst, we have a fantastic set of characters, a well-told story, and historical reenactors. What more could you ask for?
*I hope you know this is a good thing. I have seen every episode of The Gilmore Girls more than once. Some of them I can practically recite.
Reviewed from Library Copy.