A darkly comic-and surprisingly sweet-coming-of-age story set in the dystopic suburban near-future
It's morning in America. A plague of mutant grasshoppers invades a hopelessly artificial landscape. Bands of teenage boys run amok, and citizens regularly drop dead from toxic exposure or cultish voluntary suicide. And down in the "family nook," fourteen-year-old Edie Stein is training fiercely for her town's annual Feminine Woman of Conscience Pageant, in which adolescent girls compete in the erotic and other womanly arts. Yet no matter how expertly her mother coaches, Edie's having trouble arousing her practice dummy. Her heart's just not in it.
Growing up has never been easy. But when the landscape around you has become as surreal as the treacherous emotional terrain within, you might contemplate desperate measures-enrolling in submarine school, running off with the girl next door, doing a Happy Ending.
Just Like Beauty is not so much science fiction as a pitch-perfect sendup of the way we live now. In the mold of Don Delillo's White Noise, it offers a trenchant look at where our current enslavement to commodification and technology is taking us. But at its heart it is also a tender and believable portrait of the persistence of love and longing in an increasingly inauthentic world.
|Product dimensions:||5.92(w) x 8.48(h) x 0.78(d)|
About the Author
Lisa Lerner has published essays and short fiction in Self, Bust, and other publications. This is her first novel. She lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
A month after the Amazing Mister Fezundo willed himself to burst into flames, I have a headache and tell my mother maybe it's a brain tumor like Benny Gold's, but all she can say is, "Oh no, Edie. I'm expecting my period, and I'm not in the mood." Her sentence ends on a panicked note and I can feel the possibility of a good day collapsing inside her, how by mid-afternoon, even as she stands in the kitchen thermoconverting Just Like Beans, she will be wishing she could be traded in for her own improved substitute, a Just Like Lorraine. If only that were possible: just like her but not her at all.
The sound track at breakfast is one long, tight-lipped sigh. I crunch quietly, afraid to let my decibels blend in with hers. We are both on edge because Alice Jones, my sacrificial rabbit, is behaving strangely, might even be having a life-threatening reaction to her meds, and short of an emergency phone conversation with Mrs. Vrick, the rabbit expert, and administering two injections of Bun-Be-Calm, there is nothing more we can do but wait and see.
After the second injection, Alice Jones's floppy ears seemed to droop even longer; she's an English Lop and if I were to enter her in a professional rabbit raisers' rabbit show, her twenty-six-inch ears would be better than a hand job to those judges. I'm probably going to feel terrible when I have to skin her to make my fur muff at Pageant. It's the ultimate insult after all her hard hours of practicing the official routines, to be turned into a fashion accessory. But we girls are expected to know how to dominate and then kill animals,and the sacrifice is supposed to be a sign of maturity. Plus, a fur muff will last forever if you care for it right.
My father stares at his breakfast without eating. He has his own little problem. One of the topiary technicians at work gouged the throat of the company president with a pruning hook and then bombed a couple of greenhouses. Dad's rodent features are puffy today, and behind his glasses his blue eyes look like someone's airbrushed even more of the color out. He's got three gravy-colored moles on his cheek. Were they always there? Right now they are interfering with my digestion. I also notice his neck seems fatter, and as usual he has missed whole strips of stubble during his shave. If he were smiling, which he definitely is not, his teeth would appear too tiny for his face. Mouse teeth. Before I was born, he was so handsome no one noticed that his eyebrows were nearly nonexistent. His lips look exactly like a little girl's.
Dad and I. We've never had that much to say to each other. He's on the road a lot, peddling topiary. When I was smaller, he'd read the catalogue to me, teaching me the names of trees. When the Adventure Forest came to town, he'd volunteer to drive me there so he could stand motionless at the observation window as I bungeed down the redwoods, and even now sometimes he brings me things from his trips, like a V-release about the Amazing Mister Fezundo's paranormal childhood in Bakersville, California, or once a fist-sized ceramic frog for Valentine's Day. "Kiss it," he joked. "It'll turn into a prince." But his face looked like he'd just swallowed hexane, and later I found out that my mother had told him to say it. He seems happiest when he's wearing that awful vest with fifty pockets as he heads off to net some wings.
Battus philenor, Papilio troilus, Pieris rapae, Everes comyntas. He keeps his ever-growing collection on metal-lyte shelving next to his workbench, each butterfly and moth labeled and carefully arranged on black or white velveteenite, the names written in his girlish handwriting. What does he think about, on those summer days in the high grass, catching powdery wings in his net, with his wife at home glaring unfucked into her magazines, his daughter listening to the pages turn?
He looks at the clock, then raises his cup and sips. His little-girl lips come together in a prim line. "Cold."
"You want me to heat it?" My mother sighs again, and holds open the door to the thermurderator.
"I suppose." He hands her his cup, avoiding any skin-to-skin contact, although it seems to me that one touch would cheer them both up.
It drives her mad, but now he turns on the morning news. He has to hear the API, the Air Pollution Index.
"Great. Another breakfast ruined."
"I have to find out, Lorraine, because it affects the trees," he grouses, looking almost unhappy enough to cry.
"Why can't you just wait to read it after breakfast on your screen downstairs?"
"Because you know I like to hear it while I eat. And I've got to prepare for my Integrated Pest Management meeting at nine, so there won't be any after breakfast."
"Heaven forbid I should obstruct humanity's ongoing fight against pests."
"It's my job. Why do you have to give me a hard time about it?"
"I'm not," she says without looking at him. "Of course I'm thrilled having a basement full of dead butterflies."
"One thing has nothing to do with the other." Miserably, he clicks down the volume on the news.
"Untrue. Dead butterflies have everything to do with why a peaceful family breakfast around here is an impossible dream."
"I only want to hear the API, Lorraine," he sighs, fiddling with the moles on his cheek. "It's five minutes. Can you sacrifice five minutes?"
A forkful of eggs spears the air dangerously close to my father's head as she leans toward him over the table. "I can sacrifice a lifetime. I think I've made that clear." The fork's handle stays rigid between her beautiful fingers just long enough for my father to edge his chair away, then retreats back to her plate with a clang.
Outside, the streets are quiet except for the Insecticide Hut truck making its own pest-management rounds; the fish-faced guard inside his pale pink security patrol station at the entrance to our neighborhood is probably sleeping, dreaming about a better job than waiting for some hysterical nut to call him up and complain that alien grasshoppers have landed in the backyard birdbath. Which is what happened last week when creaky Mr. Pullings drank too much Mondo Surge. Everyone at the neighborhood association meeting had a good chuckle over it according to my mother, even Pullings was laughing until he lost control of his bladder.
The simfab Swiss chalet clock ticks without sound until the little Swiss boy pops out, the floor smells of sweet chemicals, the curtains my mother appliqued hang stiffly at the windows, the hardware of the sink gleams from her religious polishing. Nobody says anything during the API reportvery bad news for Rice County, but our county, Slerkimer, reports only mild increases in nitrogen oxides and sulfur compounds. A low API is always good for me, the allergic reaction queen. When it ends, my father switches it off, silently pushes away from the table, and exits. My mother tilts her head back and repeatedly rubs her cheeks, a shaky smile between her hands. "I knew he was going to do that. I had a premonition."
"Mom, please." When she talks like this, my heart grows soft for all the hatchet men locked up in Tenner State Prison. "I was born with an ESP," she is always whispering to people. "I wish it weren't so. It's stressful having all that extra power."
"I knew that technician was trouble, too," she says to his empty chair. "I dreamt those greenhouses would be destroyed, and when I woke up I told your father he should do something. Even after Petey, he still refuses to believe."
Way back before Alice Jones was in our lives, when I was just a kid, our cocker spaniel Petey got lost. By the second day, I cried so hard I threw up. Suddenly, my mother's ESP kicked in, and alone and coatless she drove out to the Mohawk Canal. It was dark and she forgot to take a flashlight, but she tramped bravely along the rocky paths in her heels, calling for Petey until she heard his yelp and he came limping toward her. He smelled like he'd been rolling in dead fish, but my mother scooped him right up, and when she walked through the kitchen door holding him in her arms, I hardly knew what surprised me more, the sight of Petey or the blood and dirt all over her dress. I practically knocked her down with my hug, and Petey had no luck getting his furry body between us.
I've been toying with my response time. "It was pretty amazing that you knew where to find him."
"Damn right I was amazing." Her voice is soft, melodic.
"Your father thought I was pretty amazing once upon a time. Before he went into male menopause or wherever it is he's gone."
"It's important for me to tell you these things, Edie, even though you don't like to hear them. You have to be prepared for what's to come."
"Baby." Her lovely face flushes. I push away from the table and carry my dish to the sink. Behind me, I hear her say, "I want the best for you. More than the best. You know I love you more than anything in this world." I know that she means it. She works hard to train me; down in the family nook her anti-perspirant struggles to do its job against her fluids every time she scissors the blow-up dummy's hips between her thighs. Everything she does is for my benefit, to insure my chance of ending up somewhere better than she did; with all her creative energy and intelligence, she could have been a force of great change in the world. She wanted to accomplish so much, but there was always some bad break: the prejudiced pageant judges, her near-death brush with breast cancer, the long struggle to stay pregnant, and then the postpartum depression; a thousand lottery tickets purchased, and all the numbers off by one.
Foolishly, I turn, and as her arms reach out to gather me in an embrace, a glass of Natural Prune-n-Low spills across my empty placemat.
"Sorry, hon. None got on your pj's, did it?"
"No, Mom. It's okay."
Now her fist crams my father's leftover breakfast into the trash pulverizer. "These new hormone reeds are murdering my skin. Mark my words, a few years of Mymonolucoval and I'll have no face left whatsoever." She calls up to the ceiling, "Damned from the minute go! That's the real truth about women." Then she bumps into a kitchen chair, hard, and a phantom ache travels through my own leg.
"I wasn't done with that." My father reenters the kitchen.
"Well, next time say something instead of just storming out of a room."
"I went to the bathroom." His face is pale. Another emergency visit to the Gastroenterology Salon would just ice his cake.
She elbows him in the ribs and steps on his toe. Then she points her chin at both of us and we watch it tremble, the rims of her eyes reddening in their premenstrual focus on the life she's been denied, she of all that extra power, her inner eye once again ticking off the scenes of indignity and suffering. She's thinking perhaps of how different things might be if only she hadn't gotten stuck in a town where the height of fashion was a Christmas angel sweatshirt and the bells of Our Lady of Gentle Welcome dong the first eight bars of "Taking a Chance on Love" twenty-four times a day practically in her own backyard. It doesn't help either that several Virtue Club officials have quietly informed her that since she isn't currently observant of her faith, it might be a good idea to think about changing her last name to something less obviously ethnic; after all, there has been a resurgence of anti-Semitic incidents in some of the neighboring counties and she has me, a probable Pageant contestant, to consider.
Cabinets are slammed open and a loaf of sliced Just Like Bread is suddenly airborne. She whirls around to face us. "You want breakfast? Find me a blowtorch!"
In the Poise and Cookery event, fifty points go to the girl who can flip perfect pancakes while reciting protocol for entertaining international government officials. If she can do it while being attacked by a swarm of mosquitoes, she wins the event's medal.
The kitchen floor vibrates as my mother stamps out of the room.
"I had a dream you were wearing that orange dress from Palmer's," she calls out from her bedroom. "All the neighbors came over and gave you a standing ovation. You had the headdress topping your hair construction and everyone was cheering. And sure enough, in the newspaper this morning there's an article about Franklin Echo's private art collection. That headdress is over three thousand years old, and you know what it's worth. So I think you should put on the dress."
She claims padded shoulders are on the return and all the designer rage; the truth is this dress takes her right back to the year of the Slerkimer County Fertilizer Association Pageant when she was crowned Mulch Queen. Not exactly the prestige of being crowned Miss Deansville, but it was her one first-place win, and when she saw this dress on the rack at Palmer's she nearly wept for the memory of parading around a dung-scented pasture. Bubbeh had said she only won because Zadeh bribed the judges with free jugs of DDT, though, and so for two years my mother the Mulch Queen had refused to speak to either of her parents.
"It's a little big in the waist, but never mind about that. I'll get it tailored. That dream is an omen."
Dreams. Each night while I am standing on the blue and white seashell throw rug, squeezing an inch of intestinal red gel onto my toothbrush, like the Amazing Mister Fezundo I start willing myself; it's my private project, to will myself unconscious, so far gone I am certain not to dream. I've collected some theories about how it may be done, but so far I can't prove any. Some nights I will myself to be like Biggy, the fireproof rag doll that I still keep in bed with me, even though I don't need her to protect me anymorethe smiling Just Like Meat Planet astronaut with burning chains and stale breath hasn't come through my wall at night to steal my soul in months. Sometimes it works; my arms and legs and eventually my stomach relax into the sheets, and deep down in my muscles my skeleton dissolves into white trails of baby powder. The octopus grip on my brain loosens and everything goes quiet for a while. I can forget how much the Sacrificial Rabbit event is worth in Pageant's point scheme, can stop mentally juggling a trio of kitchen chairs, and when I do sleep, my mind is a pure, deep-black blank.
On a lucky night, I'll manage to fall asleep despite Jupiter's dot of silver fire peeking through the gap in the curtains, but even then I may dream splashy, Vegas-like productions of fantastic gore. Last night I was a glamorous butcher, stashing my victims' breasts and thighs and livers in my mother's clothes flattener. Everything was lit up and sparkling. A twenty-piece orchestra was swinging. I wiped my bloody hands on the front of my silver evening gown and started to dance. Our basement laundry room was the Caesar's Palace of basement laundry rooms. My mother's heels tap-tapped down the stairs. A man signaled me to get off the stage. My mother had found out what I'd done and she was going to ground me. After dreams like this, the rotten air from Deansville Middle School doesn't wait for me to leave home, it has already blown out of the school and up the hill into my bedroom, ready to press against my clammy body as soon as I wake.
Down the hall my mother was dreaming too, her bat-shaped eye mask tight across her face, but I am not the star of her dreams anymore. "If only I'd tried to have another child after I managed to have you," she's gotten in the habit of saying, the faint lines around her mouth growing sharper. This morning she says, "If I'd had another girl, I think she'd be taller. All I could eat were tortillas, the whole time I was pregnant with you. I think that's why you turned out so small. Of course, after all those miscarriages, it's a miracle you turned out at all."
She lays the dress on my bed, a dress she herself would love to be able to squeeze into, her large curves held firm and eye-popping as she sweeps down some pageant runway. It is supposed to change everything, to make me taller, maybe even smarter; it is supposed to save my mother from turning into a tortilla under the eighteen wheels of an airbrushed semi, this dress that will make me look like a sawed-off carrot.
"I figured it out!" she says. "It's the color of my old boroonga contest dress! I was just thinking about Hector the other day. I saw a man at Grocery Town with the exact same eyelashes. God, Hector was sensitive." She was in Cancún on her honeymoon when she met Hector the bearded dance instructor at the Como Esta Hotel. "He was the first person to tell me what a fantastic mover I am, you know that? He looked at me through those long Latin eyelashes and told me that my body moved like silken wind, and suddenly all those years of modern dance lessons paid off. He got down on his hands and knees and literally begged with tears in his eyes for me to be his boroonga partner."
In my head I chime along with the rest of the story: even though she was very busy tanning she made time to practice, and they ended up winning first prize in the citywide boroonga contest. (My father, the other honeymooner, remembers nothing about it.) When she finishes talking, she strikes a boroonga pose and for a moment tears burn my sinuses. To see her dance is to know why music was invented. After I learned to walk, she taught me to be her boroonga partner, but we don't do it anymore because it's not appropriate Music and Dance material.
After she leaves I yell, "That orange is too bright. Bright colors don't look good on me." The truth is, I don't want Lana to see me wearing a dress. My calves are the same bony width as my ankles; my kneecaps are set wrong, turned in as if they've been slapped. Dresses make me nervous, like some horned insect will buzz up there; my body can't move right in a dress, or at least not this dress, with its fuss of ruffles down the front. I stand over my bed and feel the orange glare burn my face. Instinctively, my hand yanks the dress down to the carpet where Alice Jones huddles in her enigmatic misery. "Carrot," I joke lamely. "Come on, eat the carrot." The rabbit's nose twitches beneath her clouded eyes. This morning's freak behavior aside, Alice Jones is a genius; even Mrs. Vrick cannot believe how quickly she is learning the routines. If her current disorientation lasts and we have to start over with a brand-new rabbit, it will be a very serious disadvantage. I stroke her ears and whisper twenty-three healing suggestions, but the only thing Alice Jones seems to be responding to is a private behavior-modified hell.
After my shower, my mother taps for me to unlock the door, and I cover myself with a towel and let her in. I flush. I don't like my mother to see my skin with water on it. In fact, I don't care to have my mother see any of what I see in the mirror: my pointy, sallow-skinned face with eyes that show doubt too easily, the big teeth like hers just barely contained by my father's too-small lips.
"Make sure you use the head wringer to dry your hair. All I need is for you to trigger an allergic reaction by walking around with a wet head all day."
I'm about to argue that I don't have time for head wringers when from the window I see the Grimaldis' gigantic, eight-door miniwagon pull into their driveway. The sky is a creamy, dream-date blue. Immediately, I snap into high gear. She's back!
"Are you listening?"
"Yes! All right. Okay. All right." The sunlight breaks on the miniwagon as the doors are flung open and the Grimaldi family emergesfirst Lana, then her dad, and finally Mrs. Grimaldi.
My mother follows my gaze. "Well, it looks like the Grimaldis are done with their funeral already. I guess he has to get over to the restaurant before someone steals him blind." My mother shakes her head and rubs her upper arms as if she's cold. "I feel sorry for that family. That man has one hot temper."
"You don't even know them."
"I know what I hear."
"Don't criticize, Edie. Especially not this morning. I have to make forty-five turnip bouquets for my Virtue Club meeting. You know Bubbeh Esther is coming soon and I've got to get the house shined up. I only pray those renovations on her house don't take more than a month. Which reminds me, if she asks, you're only training an hour a day, all right? And don't get her started about Alice Jones. All those chickens she chopped up on the farm and she rides me about one measly rabbit."
I keep quiet. I am watching Lana's legs make contact with her driveway as she gets out of the car, watching her mouth talk fast into her phone as she lugs a sack the size of a pony. She's wearing an antique army jacket I've never seen before, and that skirt she made out of Amazing Mister Fezundo promotional neckties. I'd give anything to be wearing a silver sharkskin suit, standing outside on our front lawn lighting two Skull cigarettes with a silver lighter, my father's ancient CD player hooked up, playing one of my mother's old Latin CDs. Lana and I could do the boroonga after we smoked.
Her head is down, sun beaming her long hair into a strip of rippling light.
"She looks like a witch, with all that hair in her face." Automatically, my mother pushes my hair away from my forehead, but as she reaches for the head wringer, I wriggle away. "And that outfit! What kind of a skirt is that?"
It's the skirt of a girl people need to be careful around. When I asked Lana if she was going to compete in Pageant, she lit a Skull, took a long drag, and with smoke shooting out her nostrils pulled down the neck of her T-shirt and put out the lit end right where her breast swelled above her heart. "If I want pain, I'll make my own, thank you very much," she said. "That Pageant is crap." The smell of her burnt flesh stayed in my nose for weeks.
"I'm going to be late." I scoot out the door toward my bedroom but it doesn't matter how quick I am this morning. My mother follows, a comb in hand, ready for action. She nearly trips over Alice Jones. "What's this dress doing on the floor? Alice Jones could doody on it. Who knows what she'll do today?"
"She won't. Her elimination habits are regulated by the Bun-Be-Calm. She'll go in her cage. She's not that far gone," I add doubtfully, struggling into the dress before I dash back to the bathroom. My mother's words are eaten by the motor of the head wringer as I keep my eyes peeled for Lana. It's impossible to know the digital minute when she'll leave the house for school, and so far this fall she has managed to slip out of our neighborhood unseen by me; the only time we walked together was the day Bobby Lomer was killed by the bricks that fell off the school. I watched our feet the whole way. Now the closest I come to her in the morning is when I catch sight of her dark hair floating through the weapon detector. Other times, I walk by her homeroom and her seat is all cold empty metal-lyte, even after the last buzzer.
The head wringer growls away at my ears while I watch Lana help her mother unload the rest of the miniwagon. Mr. Grimaldi walks around them, waving his arms. Then he grabs a large box away from Mrs. Grimaldi and throws it on the ground; the box opens and a jumble of clothes spill out. When Mrs. Grimaldi kneels down to put them back in the box, Mr. Grimaldi pulls at her hair to make her stand up. Lana tries to stop him, but he shakes her off and stomps into the house. Lana's skirt blows around her knees as she stands over the spilled clothes with her arm around her mother; she's wearing black riding boots and the thought of her riding horseback quickens my pulse.
I plow into my mother on my way to the kitchen and we have to grab each other to keep from falling. As quick as I can, I get my hands off her, my nose registering for the fiftieth time this morning how no matter what perfume she wears, it never seems to mask her own peppery smell. I grab onto a straight-backed chair to steady myself.
"You nearly knocked me over." A hand presses against her heart. Her dress is red, shocking, like a fresh cut.
"I'm going to be late."
"What about saying excuse me? It wouldn't kill you to try practicing some Better Person Skills once in a while."
Excerpted from just like beauty by Lisa Lerner. Copyright © 2002 by Lisa Lerner. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I couldn¿t for the life of me remember why I checked this book out of the library; I hate books about girly stuff. Beauty pageants¿.. But this book is amazing. It¿s a near-future sci-fi dystopia with echoes of contemporary suburbia. Swarms of mutant grasshoppers the size of cats lurk innocuously in every corner. Gangs of blowtorch wielding teenage boys roam the streets. Teenage girls are taught to be the perfect epitome of beauty, synthetic sex with synthetic rubber men, and perfectly trained in clubbing and skinning their ninja-dancer rabbits to compete in beauty pageants. And Edie can¿t keep her mind and hands off of the girl next door long enough to concentrate on the pageant.The writing is a little rough in places; it¿s Lerner¿s first novel. The title of the books is echoed in every product mentioned in the book (Just Like Cotton Sheets. Just Like Aspirin.), which is funny at first but gets old fast. I was disappointed with the ending; it didn¿t fit in with the rest of the book. But the meat (Sorry. The ¿Just Like Meat¿) of the novel was amazing.
I didn't give it a full 5-star rating, because I didn't think it was worthy. I did like the idea of the book, it was very well written, but it's really confusing, it normally takes me 3 days to read a book this took me 3 weeks. Edie is a very mysterious character, but I didn't see her personality shine, like sometimes what she said didn't fit her character, but that's just me. I'm not saying don't buy this book, because I thought it was good, but I'm 13, you should be like 16, or it will go way over your head. If you strongly dislike sci-fi stuff, don't read it. It's not really sci-fi, but it can be at times. It's like a sci-fi meets chick flick. There is romance in this book too, just not the kind you would think of. I picked this book out by thinking it was a romance/struggle book, it wasn't, think again. *** The ending throws you off.