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Video: ‘Imperfect Bliss’ brings intellect to chick lit

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TODAY books
updated 7/17/2012 6:19:07 PM ET 2012-07-17T22:19:07

'Imperfect Bliss' centers around the Harcourts of Chevy Chase, Maryland, a middle-class, mixed-race couple with four daughters of marriageable ages. Their old-fashioned mother hopes each of her children will marry a wealthy gentleman, but that's not what all her daughters have in mind. Here's an excerpt.

Chapter one

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.

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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.

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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.

Excerpted from Imperfect Bliss by Susan Fales-Hill. Copyright © 2012 by Susan Fales-Hill. Excerpted by permission of Atria Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

© 2012 MSNBC Interactive

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