If You're Not Yet Like Me by Edan Lepucki
I wouldn’t mind being a bit more like Edan Lepucki. She’s well on her way to a fantastic career as a writer. In addition to writing fiction, she’s a staff writer for The Millions (which I consider second only to Bookslut, as far as online literary magazines go), and her writer bio is filled with promise and potential, listing enough places that have published her stories to necessitate the words “among others” at the end of the list. She has an MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, she’s already winning awards for a novel that isn’t even finished, and she has even conquered the author bio itself in a funny, insightful essay. In fact, all of the essays she’s written that I’ve read are funny, insightful, and refreshingly frank, and fortunately, her novella If You’re Not Yet Like Me is, too.
Joellyn, the caustic, painfully honest narrator of If You’re Not Yet Like Me, is one of the most realistic characters I’ve ever encountered, and while I find that I can certainly relate to her, I can only grudgingly admit that I actually do like her a bit, too. The brief glimpse into Joellyn’s life that Lepucki gives us in this work in a meandering, confessional explanation of her unborn baby’s origins, told directly to her child, is so vivid that reading it feels like reading a stranger’s diary, or a letter that’s been written, but was never intended to be sent. Listening in on this one-sided conversation feels voyeuristic, which just adds to its appealing rawness.
The story begins when Joellyn falls for a man she doesn’t intend to fall for. Joellyn possesses the common confidence of attractive young women, who understand the power of a pretty face and figure, whether or not it’s deserved. Zachary is an average man; he lives in a studio apartment, works as a temp while trying to find a real job, and is not particularly handsome or charming. Joellyn describes her first impression brilliantly, saying, “He’s not ugly. This isn’t about symmetry; his face is fine. It’s more that he is bland, invisible in the way certain men in their thirties are.” Joellyn allows, even encourages Zachary to pursue her simply as a diversion from her increasingly lackluster days of singleness; his interest in her is a boost to her self-esteem, and she’s attracted to the power she gains by being the dominant personality in the budding relationship. Despite her shortcomings, which include a rather lackluster career as an author of college essays sold online and an inability to form a meaningful, lasting relationship with another person, Joellyn fully believes that she deserves to be adored, and that her impeccable taste and sharp wit make her a prize that Zachary should be vying for. When their fling begins to deepen into a romance, Joellyn is surprised with and a bit ashamed of the ease with which she slips into the routine of being Zachary’s partner.
The ingenuousness of Joellyn’s telling of her relationship with this man she never expected to be involved with intimately reveals her insecurities as she begins to discover who she really is, rather than who she would like to be. She spares her child nothing; every cruel thought and snide observation is revealed as she recounts the time spent with Zachary leading up to her pregnancy. The very act of telling her story evokes a complicated reaction in me; I’m delighted with her honesty, and her extraordinary capacity for putting her most subtle emotions into words is captivating, but pouring this flood of emotion into a baby’s brain seems almost cruel, selfish at the very least. Joellyn’s story doesn’t feel like the cathartic release she needs before putting aside her childish ways; it feels more like a justification of her own behavior, and it’s impossible for me to read the story without imagining the battle that raising this child will be. With a mother that spares no uncomfortable realization from her child, who speaks to her with the familiarity of a lifelong friend rather than a parent, the ensuing tension that will arise as both mother and child seek maternal guidance is already palpable. Even so, Lepucki manages to create a sympathetic, surprisingly likable character out of the way Joellyn slowly defines her feelings and talks herself through the unexpected maturation she experiences throughout her stunted romance with Zachary. Joellyn’s and Zachary’s relationship is not a fairy tale by any stretch of the imagination, but the growing bond between them is bittersweet and lovely. Even though the ending of this brief tale makes perfect sense, I didn’t see it coming. In reading her story, I entered so fully into Joellyn’s thoughts that I was as fooled by her pretense of togetherness as she was; the film of shallow expectations that she views the world through is opaque enough to affect even the reader’s vision of Joellyn’s world.
Handily packaged in the book alongside the novella are a second story, “I am the Lion Now,” and an interview with the author. While I would have liked to find the novella as part of an entire collection of stories, the inclusion of this second work is welcome, and has certainly piqued my interest in finding more of Lepucki’s fiction. (Luckily, you can read several of her short stories online while waiting for her novel to be published.) Like the novella, “I am the Lion Now” is a story about parental emotions while awaiting the birth of a baby, but this story feels completely different, keeping only the author’s sharp wit and tenderness towards her characters as a thread weaving the stories together. Unlike Joellyn’s story, though, which manages to retain its sense of humor despite the story’s underlying tension and the narrator’s lack of self-awareness, this story has a loose, relaxed lightness that that turns the fearful parental expectation that Joellyn feels into nervous excitement and anticipation. The omniscient narrator in this story is a stark contrast to Joellyn’s one-sided tale and evokes an almost folkloric feel, which is increased as a possum joins the cast. Read in conjunction with “If You’re Not Yet Like Me,” this story completes a multi-faceted view of parenting and pregnancy and beautifully showcases the range of Lepucki’s writing. The significant impact of the short works in this book is impressive, and I look forward to whatever she writes next.
If You're Not Yet Like Me by Edan Lepucki