Bliss Harcourt stared down at her daughter who stood with cherubically plump arms tightly crossed to prevent her mother from removing her powder-blue ersatz satin princess dress. How do you tell a four-year-old you can have the right outfit and the right attitude but it doesn’t mean your prince will come? And even if he does show up, he might just ride away, permanently, mused Bliss as Bella scowled at her through baby bifocals worn beneath a spangled plastic tiara. “Bella, please take off the costume,” Bliss pleaded, not wanting to use bodily force, but aware that her stores of patience diminished with every passing minute.
“I’m not Bella, I’m Cinderella,” the bespectacled tot shot back, setting her lower lip in a defiant just try to take it off pout. Bliss took a deep breath and closed her eyes, counting to ten. When she opened them, she found Bella’s expression unchanged: she was frozen in stubborn determination to go to school a princess.
Bliss looked around the room, a wax museum of her adolescence. The four-poster bed with its flowered chintz canopy had stood unaltered since her sweet sixteen. In a corner, on the back wall of the room, hung her pantheon of youthful heroes and sheroes: Nelson Mandela, Mary McLeod Bethune, Bono, Mumbet (the first black woman to sue for liberation), and, incongruously, Queen Elizabeth II in full coronation regalia, included at her mother’s insistence. Bliss was thirty-three and a half and this is what her life had come to: moving back in with her parents while she dug herself out of postdivorce debt and having standoffs with her daughter over a princess costume made of fabric so synthetic that it crunched like a cellophane candy wrapper being opened in a darkened movie theater every time she moved. Bliss sighed in frustration at what she perceived to be a conspiracy to turn every little girl in the developed world between the ages of two and ten into an aspiring bridezilla. Surely the film companies were in cahoots with the nefarious wedding industry. They had to be or there would be films about girls founding Internet start-ups, going to medical school, joining Habitat for Humanity, not endless rehashings of the parable of the motherless virgin looking for love in all the royal places. If only little girls knew where happily ever after led.
Bliss looked from the poster of a youthful Che Guevara, a hero she and her ex-husband shared, to the Yale insignia ring he’d given her in lieu of an engagement band three years before they actually wed. Neither of them believed in diamonds since you couldn’t really be certain they hadn’t been dug out of Sierra Leonian sludge by conscripted child soldiers. In the wake of the divorce, Bliss had moved the ring to her right hand, but she couldn’t yet bring herself to remove it entirely, and consign it to a box of keepsakes tucked away on a shelf. Every morning she sprung out of bed hoping it would be the day her divorce suddenly struck her as 100 percent the right decision, in the same way that following her beloved down to Miami soon after college and marrying him had. Countless articles in glossy women’s magazines told her she should have felt at peace when she ended her marriage. To her that was like saying, “You should feel entirely at ease about your impending amputation. Did we mention, we’re all out of anesthesia?” Who were these bloodless couples who could calmly discuss unraveling their conjoined lives over a steaming cup of international coffee?
She looked down once more at Bella who absentmindedly hummed a waltz from the Cinderella movie. When Bella was of age, would Bliss join the cabal of mothers lying about the glories of matrimony in order to perpetuate the human race? No, she would find a way around that myth, while not dashing all her daughter’s romantic dreams the way life and recent events had hers. Was this the moment to disabuse Bella of her illusions given that her own father barely bothered to visit, call, or send a text message? Maybe not. She hadn’t finished preschool, and it wasn’t even 8:00 AM. Bliss decided to spare her, at least till kindergarten. Fairy tales were like candy: fine if you didn’t make a steady diet of them. Besides, she had to admit to herself that somewhere in the depths of her soul, she too was clinging to the hope that her ex would someday return. Failing that, she would happily settle for not feeling like she’d been hit by a Mack truck doing a hundred and twenty on I-95. Not feeling like road kill, yes, that would be a big improvement, she thought to herself. But there was no time to sing the “why me?” blues. She had to get Bella to school.
Kneeling down before her, she stroked her baby-bottom soft cheek and calmly said, “If you take if off now, you can wear it all afternoon.” Bella demurred, frowning. She wanted specifics, from what time till what time? Could she wear it till she went to bed? “Till bath time,” her mother answered. Bella furrowed her brow, weighing the offer, and then dropped her arms in surrender. Bliss lifted her own to indicate this is how we take it off. Bella followed suit and Bliss peeled the yards of dime-store tulle off her. As she handed her a short skirt, she looked down at Bella’s right leg, which splayed out in its ankle brace. It was probably one of the reasons Bella wanted to wear her long costume to school: to shield herself from the taunts of the other children and forget her disability. Donning the skirt, Bella lost her balance, teetered, and fell. Bliss wanted to kick herself for not catching her in time. She repressed the impulse to pick her up and hold her tight. She smiled instead. “Come on, my little toughie,” she said, her eyes beaming strength, encouragement, and heartfelt pride. Bella painstakingly pulled herself up. Bliss inwardly sighed with relief. Every such moment was a little Olympic victory in her child’s life. A challenge is an opportunity. That which does not kill me makes me stronger. . . . If it doesn’t land me in the lunatic asylum. Bliss recited the litany in her head, refusing to dwell on the unfairness of genomic roulette. She wished she could switch places and live with the diplegia on Bella’s behalf. There I go again, she mentally chided herself, doing useless wishing. It was her favorite pastime other than reading history. Really they were of a piece. She could earn her PhD and become a world-renowned expert on French and American race relations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but all she would ever do was comment with the wisdom of hindsight, not change the outcomes.
From downstairs, she heard her mother scream. The last time she’d heard her mother let out such a howl had been when she’d had the misfortune of visiting during the royal engagement of Prince William to “commoner” Kate Middleton. Her mother had felt robbed, as if that “upstart” “Waity Katie” had stolen the position that rightfully belonged to one of her four beautiful, American daughters. “It should have been us!” she’d wailed at the time. Now Bliss wasn’t just visiting, she was stuck listening to these rants. Grabbing her knapsack, books, and Bella’s hand, Bliss ventured down the slightly tilted and creaking staircase of the two-and-a-half-story Tudor cottage to discover the source of her mother’s latest wrath.
Closely trailed by Bella, Bliss entered the wainscoted dining room to find her mother at the breakfast table in one of her trademark poses of soap-operatic grief. She leaned back in her reproduction Hepplewhite chair, one hand poised on a bosom so ample it strained the buttons of a peach chiffon peignoir two sizes too small. In spite of her agony, her Eartha Kitt bouffant wig (1980s vintage) was perfectly pinned in place and her “Very Vixen” lipstick flawlessly applied.
“Another opportunity lost,” Forsythia wailed as she handed the receiver to her youngest daughter, seventeen-year-old Charlotte, and grabbed a steaming crumpet from a nearby plate. Harold Harcourt, Bliss’s father and Forsythia’s husband of thirty-six agonizingly long years, raised his day-old London Times—a treasured link to his home country—above his face, a shield against the impending onslaught. Bliss stifled a laugh.
“Hi, grandma,” Bella ventured brightly, but her greeting went unheeded.
“Does the girl think fiancés grow on trees?” Forsythia cried out to no one in particular as Charlotte dutifully slathered butter on another crumpet and placed it in her mother’s plump brown hand with a reassuring smile.
“She discards them like . . . like . . .” the distraught mother of four unmarried girls searched for a suitably dire image, “Fruit pits! Remember the tobacco lobbyist, the venture capitalist, the ‘bean bag baby’ tycoon Missy introduced her to? He had his own plane! The burger bun magnate, the heir to the stealth-bomber fortune.” She rattled off the list of golden chances lost, sinking deeper into melancholy with each one.
“It’s sheer recklessness. And waste!!! Shameful waste!!! Harold, do you hear me?” She shrieked at her better half. From behind his paper fortress came the answer.
“Yes, sadly,” he said.
“What do you propose to do? We’ve lost another one.”
“Another what?” Harold sighed wearily.
“Another one of Victoria’s potential fiancés, of course. The lawyer, Dean Wong. How are we to get him back?”
Harold lowered his paper for a moment and furrowed his brow, as if deep in thought.
“I suppose we should send for the police. No, we can only do that after he’s gone missing for twenty-four hours. Better yet, I shall set out with my harpoon and a net this afternoon.” With that, he raised his paper barrier against his wife once again. Forsythia Harcourt’s face went from cinnamon brown to woman-scorned crimson.
“Don’t you see the gravity of the situation?” She screeched in the lilting cadence of her native Jamaica, an accent that reasserted itself whenever she was angry, out of sorts, or slightly smashed. She shoveled an entire crumpet into her heart-shaped mouth. Charlotte patted her arm soothingly, and pouted in sympathy. The barrier never dropped, the pages merely turned. Forsythia knew she had to wage this battle on her own. Her husband was content merely to see their daughters leave home and earn university degrees. He had no sympathy with her plans to see them married into the best, or at the very least, the wealthiest families in the country. Why had she bothered to fight and scrape her way out of her native Jamaica? Why had he left England if not for the opportunity to raise girls who would marry well, which meant wealthily and hopefully worthily? Feminists and career women could yammer all they wanted about independence and gender equality, but the surest path to financial security for a woman was still through a man. She contemplated her last born, Charlotte, a lithe mocha-hued gazelle in her schoolgirl plaid.
“You won’t disappoint me, will you, my Charlotte?”
“No, Mama,” Charlotte reassured her in a butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-my-mouth voice while shaking her brown ringlets. Bliss rolled her eyes knowing full well the inner slut her baby sister concealed beneath her sweet-as-pie exterior.
Forsythia turned away from Charlotte and finally noticed her second eldest, Bliss, and her only grandchild, Bella, disappointments both. Her light-brown eyes narrowed, her pug nose wrinkled as she surveyed Bliss’s grad-student dishevelment: she wore sneakers, sweats, and her dirty-blond locks knotted in a scrunchie atop her head. Forsythia washed down her bitterness with a swig of Earl Grey tea. Bliss, the lightest skinned of all her daughters had squandered her nearly Caucasian good looks on, of all things, a Cuban. A shudder went through her at the memory of the penniless “activist.” Every time she thought of it, she cringed. Now here Bliss was: back home, divorced, with a child, and eight pounds overweight. Rather than enrolling at the nearest gym and Weight Watchers, as Forsythia had advised her, the foolish girl insisted on burying herself in the library at Georgetown to earn a PhD, of all things. What would that ever do for her romantic prospects? Nothing. One might as well have an unmentionable disease affecting one’s private parts in Forsythia’s eyes. Bliss was a lost cause. Forsythia did her best to ignore her.
“Looks like another happy morning in the Harcourt home,” Bliss said gamely, sensing her mother’s reawakened disapproval and frustration and striving to overcome them.
“Morning,” Forsythia sniffed.
Harold dropped his paper and beamed at his pride and joy, the only one of his daughters who inspired in him anything other than perfunctory affection, pity, and dismay. It was he who had coined her nickname though she had been christened Elizabeth.
“Bliss,” he crowed, warmly opening his arms to give her a bear hug. Forsythia bristled and looked away. Charlotte stared absentmindedly into space, twirling a brown corkscrew curl around her tapered finger. Bliss had inherited her father’s peridot-green eyes and vulpine nose, as well as his sardonic wit. Most importantly, she had his heart and he was her oasis of sanity in the midst of a less than intellectual and sometimes unwelcoming household. Bliss settled Bella into her chair and poured her a bowl of cereal, then grabbed a crumpet and slathered it with jam.
“Should you really be eating that?” Her mother simpered.
“Yes, Blissy, you’re looking ‘vewy wibby’ these days. Moooo!!” Charlotte chimed in, shaking a finger at Bliss.
“Mommy’s not a cow,” Bella protested, sensing her mother was being insulted.
“I like being wide in the beam,” Bliss answered with a smile, while winking at Bella. “It means people leave me alone.”
“You’re a divorced hermit and Victoria’s well on her way to becoming a spinster. Lord, why hast thou forsaken me?” Forsythia lamented.
“What happened to Dean? Thought they were serious?” Bliss asked.
“Were, that’s the operative word. She’s done with him,” Forsythia explained, her voice quavering.
“Oh, well,” Bliss shrugged. “He was boring anyway. And did we really want to be related to the lawyer for half the Bush administration?”
“So now you are a judge of suitable men, since when?” her mother asked in a withering tone. Bliss knew she shouldn’t let the dart land, but it did, as usual, even after a lifetime of such insults. Just as she wished her ex-husband would turn up at her doorstep, declare his actions a terrible mistake, and fall adoringly at her feet, she wished her mother would just once look at her with something other than searing disapproval. She felt her mother resented her for some original sin she didn’t recall committing. Of course she knew it was cruel and irrational of Forsythia to expect her daughters to fulfill her striver’s dreams rather than live their own lives. But like therapy, that rational knowledge couldn’t extinguish the longing and the hope that she would see, just once, in her mother’s eyes, that spark of pride and approval that lets a person know they deserve to occupy space on the planet. But she never did. And she had to accept that she probably never would. Girding herself in humor, she began to form a response to the barb. Her father shot her an imploring keep-the-armistice-it’s-not-worth-it look, so she bit her tongue. She needed her mother that afternoon anyway to pick up Bella at day care. She decided to take advantage of the slight guilt she knew her mother felt in the wake of her attack to make the request.
“Mum, I have to meet with my thesis advisor today at three, can you pick Bella up from Bright Beginnings and watch her for the afternoon, please?”
“Everyone depends on me,” Forsythia sighed in a martyred tone.
“I’d ask Dad but he’s teaching today.”
“So am I. Nothing as exalted as the history of the atom, of course,” Forsythia said, in a snide reference to her husband’s field, the history of science.
“Ampère and the discovery of electromagnetism,” Harold grumbled under his breath.
“What are you saying, dear?” Forsythia asked.
“Nothing,” her husband mumbled from behind his paper. Forsythia waited for a moment to see if he would change his mind and explain, but he didn’t. She had kept him on the treadmill of fatherhood, unable to look up for a moment from his work, or the bills, in order to prevent him from realizing she bored him to death. Yet she knew, every time he retreated into his reading materials, that she had failed in the endeavor. She continued, mustering her pride.
“It’s my etiquette group, ‘Little Ladies.’ There are those who still think manners matter.” And there are those mothers who just need a place to park their children for the afternoon, Bliss thought to herself. Then she reminded herself that her own Yale education, and her elder sister Victoria’s years at Smith, had been subsidized in large part by her mother’s earnings leading these anachronistic classes.
“I forgot,” Bliss said.
“No matter, I’ll go fetch Bella and rush back here. It’ll be good for her; maybe she’ll learn something. Perhaps there’s hope for her.” Bliss stifled a retort. How many afternoons had she spent as an adolescent learning to curtsy before the queen (well, a life-size cardboard cutout of her) the only real queen in her mother’s book, Elizabeth of England? One of her mother’s prized possessions was an original coronation mug from 1952. It sat in the corner cabinet, above the large menagerie of glass animals. The closest they’d ever gotten to meeting royalty was seeing the backside of Princess Michael of Kent from behind a rope line in the pouring rain when she’d judged a horse show in Middleburg. Bliss understood her mother’s royalist leanings, though: they’d been beaten into her during a colonial childhood in British-ruled Jamaica. Forsythia’s sense of her own inferiority had been earned ferule lick by ferule lick. Rather than rebel, her mother had chosen the path of many colonial subjects: she lived to out-gentrify the gentry and earn their approval and acceptance, all on her husband’s limited professor’s salary. Bliss did her best not to try to convince her of the absurdity of worshipping a bunch of inbred tax dodgers in borrowed jewelry, especially since she lived in America, a republic. Even Harold managed to remain silent on the point.
Diana, the second youngest, a ripe peach popping out of her pink polo shirt and khaki skirt, ran in brandishing a glossy magazine. “Look who’s in Town and Country,” she chanted in a sorority girl singsong, tossing the once kinky locks she’d ironed into sleek submission. Forsythia eagerly grabbed the magazine from her, hoping by some miracle her garden club event had been featured. When she looked at the open page, she swooned in earnest. There for all America, nay the world, to see were Mr. and Mrs. Herman Hellman, her very best frenemy’s daughter and her new husband, heir to a condiment fortune. She and Mrs. Herman Hellman’s mother had loved and competed against each other for thirty years and now she’d been bested by the plump parvenu.
“Kitty Stump’s wedding in Town and Country. Lord, take me now,” Forsythia cried, tears of anger streaming down her cheeks.
“Mom, this is pathetic. It’s way at the back of the magazine. Next to the ads for gently used designer purses, and psychics. This is the looser section,” Diana sneered, pushing out her rounded chest. “I brought it down for laughs, not to upset you.”
“But it’s Town and Country!!! I won’t hear the end of it.”
“Don’t worry Mum, Diana’s right,” Charlotte insisted. “Who reads that part? Who reads?” At the last comment, Harold lowered his paper long enough to share a glance of disbelief with Bliss. He retreated just as quickly to his paper, forcing Bliss to wonder if his abdication was in part to blame for Charlotte’s ignorance.
“Besides,” Diana said enticingly, her cornflower-blue eyes twinkling, “By tonight, I’ll have news that’ll knock your socks off and blow the Stump/Hellmans out of the water.”
Her mother brightened and leaned forward eagerly.
“Did the Pritzker boy buy you a Diet Coke again?” she asked, practically panting.
“Who needs that geek and his overbite. This is better, much much better. And bigger,” Diana declared with a dismissive wave of her perfectly manicured hand.
“You’ll see.” She kissed her mother’s still smooth, rounded brown cheek. “Big morning: student government meeting, constitutional law class, and more,” she said in the boastful tone of the intellectually passionless but fiercely driven straight-A student/cheerleader she’d always been. In Bliss’s view, Diana had realized at a very young age that she was as bright if not brighter than the children of their far-wealthier suburban neighbors. Innately competitive, she was determined to rectify the accident of fate that had placed her on the less affluent side of life’s Monopoly board. She used every tool at her disposal to “advance.” A racial opportunist, she claimed her color when it suited her, and allowed people to believe she was white with a deep tan when it didn’t. She tantalized young men of all hues with her beauty but never surrendered. Nothing deterred her from her ultimate goal: to outstrip her richest neighbors and enter the exalted ranks of the überwealthy and famous.
“Tootles,” she cooed, flouncing out of the room. Forsythia’s mind reeled. She racked her brain trying to think of what could possibly top a feature, be it postage-stamp size, in Town & Country, the sine qua non of society magazines. Perhaps someone had proposed to Diana. How infuriating not to know. Her Diana was such a tease, but she had raised her to be. It was why she held so many young men in her thrall. She enticed but never gave in; at twenty-one, she was still certifiably virginal. A fact Forsythia knew she couldn’t assert about her youngest, but she refused to dwell on that discomfiting thought.
“Going too, Mum. Chapel this afternoon. I’ll be late coming back,” Charlotte said, also planting a kiss on her mother’s ample cheek.
“What time?” Forsythia demanded to know.
“Not sure, lots of prayers,” Charlotte shrugged wide-eyed, then walked out.
“Charlotte, your books,” her father called after her in exasperation. Charlotte ran back in and grabbed the pile on the table.
“Oops,” she giggled as she ran back out. Her father stared after her, shaking his head.
“Don’t be so hard on the poor child,” Forsythia said, defensively. Harold didn’t bother to answer. He’d given up on the girl who in his estimation had all the brainpower of a goose in heat. An uncomfortable silence settled over the table, interrupted only by Bella’s occasional slurping of her milk. Forsythia was on the verge of pouncing when Bliss locked eyes with her. She’d allow her mother to make mincemeat of her, but she drew the line at her child. Forsythia sat back in her chair and looked away, knowing to retreat from a mother lion.
“Bella, let’s get going. You don’t want to miss rug time,” Bliss said cheerfully.
“No, I don’t,” Bella agreed, slipping off of her chair and wiping her little mouth. “Bye, Grandpa,” she cried as she and Bliss walked out hand in hand.
Out on the walkway, Bliss took a deep breath. It was a crisp September morning. The trees lining the quiet streets of the genteel Maryland neighborhood were still a resplendent emerald green. Bliss considered the little 1925 Tudor cottage: a pygmy among giants in this wealthy suburban enclave. Her father had wanted to purchase a home in a more modest area, closer to the Georgetown campus. But Forsythia would not hear of it. She wanted to be in the best neighborhood, even if she had to live in a shack surrounded by gabled mansions. If she wasn’t wealthy herself, at least she could be “wealth adjacent.” Her neighbors had not exactly welcomed her with open arms back in 1975, this black woman with a foreign accent married to a bookish, nondescript Brit who made no effort to ingratiate himself. But Forsythia won them over, or wore them down with her relentless good cheer and willingness to help. Not an epic victory, Bliss mused, but an accomplishment nonetheless. She just hoped to apply her own talents, such as they were, to a more worthy pursuit than the grudging acceptance of suburban society matrons.
Bella and Bliss walked toward Bliss’s battered ten-year-old Volvo. It was sorely in need of a wash and a new coat of paint. Bliss smirked at the general shambles of her life. At least she was beautiful inside, she laughed to herself.
“I should get married,” Bella announced as Bliss backed the car out of the driveway.
“Why?” Bliss countered.
“Because it would make Grandma happy.”
Bliss beamed, her daughter’s perceptiveness having reassured her. Stupid the child was not. Perhaps she shouldn’t worry so much about her future.
“Finish preschool first, okay?” she suggested.
“Okay,” Bella answered earnestly.
As they drove down the peaceful street, they passed Charlotte, rolling up the waist of her skirt to shorten it, and tying her shirttails to reveal her pierced belly button while talking animatedly into her cell phone.
“There’s Auntie Charlotte.”
“There she is,” Bliss echoed with a pang of dismay. She felt Charlotte was headed for a personal train wreck that her mother was too much in denial and her father too weary to prevent.
“What’s she doing?”
“Something we shouldn’t be watching and I hope you never do.”
“But what is it?”
“I’ll tell you in . . . ten years.”
“I can’t do anything.” Bella sighed.
“Soon we’ll have our own place and there will be plenty of things you can do,” Bliss vowed to her. She didn’t know how or when, but she knew she must rescue her daughter and herself from the emotional cesspool that was the Harcourt home. If they didn’t get out soon, they’d drown in Forsythia’s self-loathing aspirations to royalty, Diana’s ruthless pursuit of fame at any price, and the profusion of chintz in every shade of pink known to man. When life kicks you in the ass, you kick back, Bliss thought as she revved up the engine and drove away from 101 Windsor Lane, the “little house of horrors” she called her childhood home.
Meet the Harcourts of Chevy Chase, Maryland. A respectable middle-class, middle-aged, mixed-race couple, Harold and Forsythia have four eminently marriageable daughters—or so their mother believes. Forsythia named her girls after Windsor royals in the hopes that one day each would find her true prince. But princes are far from the mind of their second-born daughter, Elizabeth (AKA Bliss), who, in the aftermath of a messy divorce, has moved back home and thrown herself into earning her PhD.
All that changes when a Bachelorette-style reality television show called The Virgin takes Bliss’s younger sister Diana as its star. Though she fights it at first, Bliss can’t help but be drawn into the romantic drama that ensues, forcing her to reconsider everything she thought she knew about love, her family, and herself.
Fresh and engaging, Imperfect Bliss is a wickedly funny take on the ways that courtship and love have changed—even as they’ve stayed the same.
Isaac Mizrahi interviews Susan Fales-Hill on Imperfect Bliss
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Take a closer look at the epigraphs for Imperfect Bliss. How does each relate to the novel? Do you think they are representing the point of view of a specific character?
2. On the surface, Harold and Forsythia are an unlikely couple. What do you think draws them together? Are there other unlikely couples in Imperfect Bliss that seem to work?
3. Do you think Imperfect Bliss takes a cynical or an optimistic take on love? What about marriage? Use examples from the novel during your discussion.
4. Bliss feels that history holds the keys to the present and the future. To what extent is this belief illustrated in the book? Do you agree with Bliss?
5. Discuss the ways that the novel addresses race. Would you say it is central to the plot? What about to the identities of the Harcourt daughters?
6. How do Bliss’s opinions of her mother and father evolve as the novel progresses?
7. On p. 246, Victoria compares being gay to being black. Do you agree with this comparison see more