Ah, WASPs: Those guilt-ridden, uptight, real estate-obsessed traditionalists. In Perfectly Miserable: Guilt, God and Real Estate in a Small Town, Sarah Payne Stuart captures the essence of this distinctive culture, tracing both her own childhood in Concord, Massachusetts, and the lives of some of Concord’s famous residents, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Louisa May Alcott.

Stuart shocks herself when, after years in “the Victorian house of my dreams, thirty minutes from Manhattan,” she and her husband Charlie decide to move back to Concord in a fit of adult homesickness.

“Suddenly my best friends living nearby in the city, my fledgling career, and Charlie’s rise at ABC News meant nothing,” she writes. “Suddenly being cool and wearing a leather jacket while nursing my baby in a Greenwich Village restaurant meant nothing—next to the thought of my children floating toy boats on the Concord River while my mother and I looked on.”

She and Charlie settle into one fixer-upper after another, sinking into debt while they raise their young family. Along the way, Stuart makes peace with her family’s history of repression, hurt and mental illness, and realizes the obvious parallels between her own family and other Concordians who have tried to rewrite their histories. (To wit: Despite Alcott’s cozy, seemingly autobiographical portrait of Marmee and her little women, Alcott’s real mother was a shrill martyr and her father a delusional freeloader.)

Stuart writes honestly and lovingly about her aging parents, her childhood, money, the trials of parenthood and keeping her marriage afloat. In other words, everything. Perfectly Miserable is a gorgeously rendered portrait of modern life—and a reminder that some things never change.

 

This article was originally published in the June 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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