Past Perfect Life – Elizabeth Eulberg, Bloomsbury, 2019
Anyone following the news over the last several weeks has been observing the outcome of the college admissions scandal. What price will wealthy and well-connected parents pay for having tried, often successfully, to buy their children places in universities, often by creating false identities for them—as high academic achievers or champions in sports in which they had never even participated?
The teens in Elizabeth Eulberg’s new novel, Past Perfect Life, are the children of hardworking parents, and the beneficiaries of a solid support system of their peers. Allison Smith lives with her widowed father in a small Wisconsin town. Her goal is to be accepted into the state university system, and she is actively engaged in trying to earn a scholarship based on academic merit. The novel offers welcome insights into the lives of ordinary kids leading ordinary lives, although the pressures of senior year in high school seem extraordinary at the time.
Then a series of events change Allison’s life, forcing her to confront a new identity and to look at her past through a new lens, one that presents a dizzying and chaotic view of the present and future as well. Elizabeth Eulberg’s narrative skills are apparent on every page, as she asks the reader to consider, reconsider, and consider again the relationships and dilemmas surrounding her characters. The affection and sincerity of almost all of Allison’s friends and community members tests the skepticism of readers accustomed to dystopian visions of cruelty and division in young adult books. Yet the picture which Eulberg paints is convincing, not merely an exercise in nostalgia for an idealized time and place where movie night with a parent or a first date with a boy are meaningful events. The boy is both physically attractive to Allison, and a compassionate listener throughout her ordeals. Really! Even the enthusiasm for football and for Wisconsin cuisine held my attention; I have to admit that this was a high bar for me, and Eulberg reached it successfully.
Without giving away any of the suspenseful plot, Allison learns to integrate her past and her present, and to balance flexibility towards change and faithfulness to her unchanging self. There are no easy lessons or facile resolutions. Relationships of parents and children are always difficult to negotiate. At the same time that changes in Allison’s life convert everyday problems into shocking and painful ones, readers will still identify with the core experiences of young adulthood which she meets without flinching. “Describe a significant event in your life and how it has influenced you,” Allison reads on a scholarship application. By the end of Past Perfect Life, readers will appreciate the irony of that simple request, and the meaning of significant to Allison and to themselves.