Nancy Pearl’s novel George and Lizzie, could very well be renamed George, Lizzie and the Shadow of Her Manic Pixie Dream Boy. Of course this title would be a mouthful, but it more or less describes the plot in its entirety.
And yes, the Manic Pixie Dream Boy/Girl is essentially a modern-age film trope, but we’ve seen it often enough in literature too.Think Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, the doyenne of Manic Pixie Dream Girls. But the Manic Pixie does exist in its male counterpart, and in George and Lizzie it exists to an almost annoying degree.
George and Lizzie are married, yes, but marriage means different things for both of them. For George, marriage to Lizzie is a shared state of mostly happiness in which the only dark cloud is Lizzie’s constant dissatisfaction. For Lizzie, marriage to George is the result of her reluctant acceptance of his love, but also a source of constant frustration rooted in endless longing, which she has nourished through the years, keeping the reasons for it purposefully hidden from George.
Lizzie’s secret is the years-old love for her Manic Pixie Dream Boy, a.k.a. Jack, her college boyfriend who dumps Lizzie unceremoniously after only ninety days of dating. Somehow in her mind he keeps his status of personified perfection, becoming her endless source of fantasy-filled scenarios and unjustified glorification of very non-existent qualities.
It must be said of course that Ms. Pearl’s longtime experience as a librarian, literary critic and NPR host, unquestionably speaks volumes about her talent for analyzing and recommending novels to readers. But in George and Lizzie, Ms. Pearl often fumbles with establishing character motivation and depth, a shortcoming that she would probably be quick to point out herself.
The opening chapter reveals how George and Lizzie meet, an unexpected encounter in a bowling alley, after Lizzie has her heart broken and George is doing his utmost best to impress another girl. A fortunate (or not) collision of their bowling balls in one of the lanes sparks the introduction, but there’s too much about Lizzie that George ignores.
By way of Ms. Pearl’s numerous flashback sequences, Lizzie and George’s opposing childhoods are obvious. She is the product of two famous behavioral psychologists who treat their only daughter as a permanent science experiment. Her only source of parental love was provided by a school-age babysitter. He is the son of a dentist and a housewife, lovingly nurtured and regularly fawned over. This is the first noticeable chasm between George and Lizzie, but certainly not the only one.
Lizzie’s behavior on occasion is bizarre at best, disturbing at worst. A blunt example of this happens in her senior year of high school when Lizzie, along with a friend, make plans to “sleep their way though the entire football team” as a form of challenge and payback, since their college-bound boyfriends are presumably cheating. Even though the friend in the end bails from the plan, Lizzie dives in wholeheartedly grabbing her friend’s share of the players as well as her own.
By the end of the Great Game as she later labels her project, she has had sex with twenty-three football players. Suffice to say Lizzie is judged as the class “slut,” even more so when it is made known that among the players she tussled with is her own boyfriend’s younger brother. Lizzie feels compelled to tell her parents about her kooky senior year project, if only to see if it goads them into some sort of reaction. Aside from the possibility of a noteworthy academic article, it doesn’t. Evidently the looming possibilities of either STDs or teenage pregnancy aren’t enough of a concern for either the author or Lizzie’s detached parents to mention.
Perhaps Lizzie’s chilly upbringing along with this dallying in promiscuity is the pilot light that starts what happens later. In her Ann Arbor college, Lizzie meets the much-mentioned Jack in a 20th century poetry class, which is an immense foreshadowing of their doomed liaison. Their romance is intense, the sex is abundant and they read poetry to each other (we did say foreshadowing). But Manic Pixie Dream Boys are not lasting relationship material, and he eventually breaks up with Lizzie by way of an ambiguous letter after he leaves school for what is supposed to be a brief vacation.
Lizzie cannot or will not admit that Jack is a callous, superficial charlatan, but instead blames his abandonment on an article published by her parents in a psychology magazine in which they coldly and mathematically analyze the sexual debauchery of an unknown teenage female. Lizzie initially has no plans to confess to Jack that the subject of the article is her, but she ends up doing so anyway. Jack’s subsequent desertion convinces Lizzie that the demise of the relationship rests solely on her shoulders.
Much to Ms. Pearl’s credit, the flashbacks even though at times unnecessarily detailed, are in no way confusing or vacuous. Details about George and Lizzie’s grandparents and parents are revealed, and there’s even have a glimpse of the current lives of some of the football players she slept with. It remains a tad ambiguous why the latter is important to the plot as it resembles a footnote at best.
George and Lizzie both come from Jewish families who handle their past in radically different ways, opening the door for the differences in how they’re raised by their parents. Lizzie even mentions to George at one point that she won’t take his name (Goldrosen), but this doesn’t mean that she wants to keep hers either (Bultmann). Why don’t they both change their names, she proposes. George firmly declines. This is the least of Lizzie’s often snide and sometimes downright mean remarks, once referring to two of George’s friends as “BORR-innnggg,” with consequently George volleying back that she is “a real snob.” Lizzie is properly shamed but this isn’t by any means the end of it.
As George and Lizzie’s relationship moves forward (the evolution of it often against the wishes of Lizzie herself) Jack’s memory becomes stronger instead of fading into oblivion. Here, Lizzie embodies the literary archetype of the unhappy and unfulfilled heroine. An Emma Bovary whose husband Charles can’t hold a candle to either Rodolfe or Léon, or an Anna Karenina whose carnal desire for Count Vronsky convinces her that her happiness depends solely on him.
Jack is nothing more than an illusion, a fantasy, but Lizzie must keep the fantasy alive lest she admit that Jack never loved her at all. In the course of her marriage to George, she spends time perusing phone books and later the Internet, looking for Jack. She searches for him during her honeymoon, in every city she and George visit, when he transitions from dentistry to an Anthony Robbins-type motivational speaker.
Jack is there, or at least the memory of him, when she’s discussing wedding plans with her future mother-in-law, and Lizzie imagines “how stupid Jack would find all this and how crazy she was to go along with it.” She wonders repeatedly how she “could break off her engagement to George in the nicest way possible when Jack came back to save her from this disastrous mistake.”
It’s clear that Lizzie’s unhappiness is of her own making, just like Emma Bovary was responsible for hers. But if she doesn’t want him, why marry George at all? Possibly because a small fragment of her mind recognizes the possibility that her misery is self-made. The fact that Lizzie keeps Jack’s existence and how he’s still very much present in her better-life fantasies a secret from George reveals in some way her shame in admitting that she is more in love with a pipe dream than she is with her husband.
The end proves quite unsatisfying, as the resulting confrontation between Lizzie and George regarding the fate of their marriage as well as Lizzie’s resolution about Jack leads to a dull and unsavory conclusion. Ms. Pearl’s narrative throughout the novel is accomplished enough, despite or perhaps due to how wholly unlikeable Lizzie is as a character, contrasting sharply with George, his family, and even Lizzie’s best friend Marla, who tries many times to provide her with a reality check that Lizzie stubbornly refuses. But the final verdict we are left to deliver is to ruefully think that George could do better than his Manic Pixie Dream Boy yearning wife.