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Monday, December 17, 2012

'Past Perfect' by Leila Sales

From the BLURB:

All Chelsea wants to do this summer is hang out with her best friend, hone her talents as an ice cream connoisseur, and finally get over Ezra, the boy who broke her heart. But when Chelsea shows up for her summer job at Essex Historical Colonial Village (yes, really), it turns out Ezra’s working there too. Which makes moving on and forgetting Ezra a lot more complicated…even when Chelsea starts falling for someone new. 

Maybe Chelsea should have known better than to think that a historical reenactment village could help her escape her past. But with Ezra all too present, and her new crush seeming all too off limits, all Chelsea knows is that she’s got a lot to figure out about love. Because those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it….

Chelsea Glaser is Elizabeth Connelly. Well, she’s Elizabeth every summer when she and her family work at their Colonial re-enactment job at Essex Historical Colonial Village. For as long as Chelsea can remember she has been daughter to the local blacksmith – donning full Colonial attire and ferreting questions from tourists; things like “aren’t you hot in that outfit?” and  “where are the toilets?” 

But this year is Chelsea’s summer as a senior, and she doesn’t want to spend it the same way she has every other ye olde summer at Essex. This year she wants to work in a mall: with air-conditioning, and a food court. And this summer she wants to forget that she’s going into her senior year without a boyfriend, since her first love, Ezra, dumped her a few months ago. 

Unfortunately for Chelsea, her best friend, Fiona Warren, is a budding stage actress whose family’s misfortunes mean she doesn’t have access to her usual drama summer camp – and the next best thing for a future actress is dressing up and getting in character at Essex Historical Colonial Village. So it’s back to the hoop skirts for Chelsea, and back to the trenches. . . because while Essex is all about authentic re-enactment by day, at night the young people of the Village are locked in a long-running feud with the teen workers of Civil War Reenactmentland across the street. 

But on the first day of re-enactment training, Chelsea discovers that her ex-boyfriend Ezra has also taken a job at Essex. And she has been thrust into the role of assistant to the Essex General in the war between re-enactment villages. And then she’s kidnapped . . . by a cute redcoat called Dan, who is technically the ‘enemy’ but also a very good kisser.

This summer Chelsea is discovering the perils of living in the past, and starting to look what her future may hold.

‘Past Perfect’ was the 2011 young adult novel from Leila Sales.

I plucked this book from my TBR pile at random. I remember buying it after hearing that it was about a girl working at a re-enactment village. Having travelled around Europe not too long ago, I remember going to my fair-share of castles, villages, homesteads, mansions etc, etc, etc where tour guides dress up in past regalia and add a little more pizzazz to the whole affair. But I admit to not giving these people much thought; they probably appear in numerous vacation photos, and for a little while I am very much under their tourist spell – but they’re forgotten the moment I leave that place. So how interesting to read a book about a girl whose whole life revolves around the past and pretending to be someone she’s not.

All that being said, I was a little disappointed by this book; and my disappointment started with the cover. The premise of ‘Past Perfect’ is so beautifully kooky, it’s a blurb that was odd enough to hook me in but I get none of that from this cover. I actually did a little test with this: I gave a brief pitch to my friend, telling her this book was about a girl who works at a re-enactment village – then I held the cover up and I got the reaction I expected. That cover is so generically “blah” it lends nothing to the powerful premise of Sales’s book. What about a girl in green trench-coat catching imaginary rain screams “re-enactment village”?

I've got to give props to the Colonial Village setting. I was not surprised to learn in the author bio that Leila Sales once worked as a costumed Colonial guide on Boston’s Freedom Trail – because the attention to detail was astounding when it came to Chelsea’s job as a re-enactor. I loved everything about this, from the typical questions she gets (“aren’t you hot wearing that?” being the number. 1 most annoying) to the cliquey factions within the employees and the sorts of people this job attracts. All this was great – Sales took a very unique and dazzling setting for her protagonist and kept me interested into it until the very end. But, the quirky setting and job of the protagonist was just about all that worked for me.

Everything else felt very hollow and two-dimensional. There’s a big chunk of story concerning Chelsea pining for her ex-boyfriend, and what they used to have. Her heartbreak is exacerbated when Ezra starts working at Essex, and she keeps replaying how good they used to be together. The obvious theme of Chelsea ‘living in the past’ – both literally in her work at Essex, and figuratively in her constant pining for Ezra – started to read thin about half-way through the book. And by the end I felt like Sales had repeatedly walloped me over the head with this theme. 

I also felt like Sales spent so much time hammering home the theme of Chelsea being stuck in the past that lots of other characters fell by the wayside. Take Chelsea’s bestie, Fiona, for example. Fiona wants to work at Essex because her family’s financial troubles mean she can’t attend her usual drama summer camp. Sales sets up very early on that Fiona’s financial situation has altered, but for the rest of the book neither she or Chelsea have a big heart-to-heart about how she’s coping with this: instead Sales redirects the bulk of Fiona’s storyline to a crush she has on a ponytailed boy called Nat Dillon. 

Chelsea also makes repeated mention of her tricky relationship with her dad. He’s very much into the Colonial re-enactment scene, and he’s a bit of a narcissist. He and Chelsea constantly butt heads – however, Sales mostly uses this father/daughter relationship for a quick laugh, often highlighting how big the man’s ego is. I would have preferred that this father/daughter relationship have real heart, I didn’t need concrete resolutions, but at least some addressing of their bigger issues.

Then there’s Dan. This is a cute-quirky romance storyline, which is fine. I like that the romance intersects with the re-enactment storyline – what with Dan working at Chelsea’s rival village. But in spending time with Dan, Chelsea learns that he too has a tricky relationship with his (recently) absentee father. But this is another potentially deep storyline that ends up skirting real issues and misses in-depth conversations in favour of a focus on the romance; 

“We shouldn't be doing this." Dan broke the silence, his voice low. "We would both get in trouble." He stood up. "Let's go back." 
"We shouldn't be doing what?" I scrambled to my feet. "What exactly are we doing?" 
"You mean consorting?" 
"Sure, consorting. Cavorting. Carousing." He paused to take a deep breath. "Kissing." Then he leaned in and pressed his mouth to mine.

I liked the premise for ‘Past Perfect’ – it’s quirky and original, and offers a fantastic setting. And the re-enactment village setting is great – Sales definitely delivers on this front. It’s just the deeper relationships that miss the mark, and the opportunity for more substantial storylines. Not to mention that Sales’s theme of ‘living in the past’ is none-too-subtle and starts to grate by the end. This one had great potential (and I really, really loved the insight into re-enactor work) but overall I was underwhelmed. 


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