The Miss America Family, by Julianna Baggott. Pocket Books. 280 pages. $24.
Memory is its own animal. It can hibernate, spawn, and rise up moths in a well-lit room, each thin body lifted by fierce wings," Pixie Kitchy notes in Julianna Baggott's second novel, The Miss America Family. Yet the memories that stalk this former Miss New Jersey are far more sinister than fluttering insects.
Pixie, still beautiful and immaculately groomed almost 20 years after her failed bid for the Miss America crown, is now a dentist's wife and mother of two in suburban Delaware. She lost her chance to win the beauty pageant when a vision of her drowning father distracted her during her talent demonstration. When she was a teen-ager, her father had in fact jumped into a river with his hands chained behind his back for a Houdini stunt and not resurfaced. He continues to haunt her, awake and asleep.
For all her poise, Pixie is "held together simply out of habit" as her 16-year-old son Ezra explains. "She was on the verge of something, like at the edge of a cliff, but having a picnic perched right there, a chic little picnic from a Longaberger basket bought at one of those stupid at-home Tupperware parties." When Pixie's mother finally reveals the secret that lay behind her father's suicidal bravado, Pixie tumbles headlong over that cliff.
The dark seams under the polished veneer of apparently perfect families have become a staple theme of contemporary American fiction. Yet Julianna Baggott brings fresh energy to this well-trodden terrain. The Miss America Family is a moving novel, gripping despite its occasional predictability.
The story unfolds in chapters alternately narrated by Pixie and Ezra. Baggott deftly orchestrates shifts in tones and perspective between the two narrators, creating two distinctive, complex and compelling characters.
Ezra's teen-age sarcasm does not quite mask his vulnerability and deep attachment to his mother. Anger, jealousy, fear and sympathy seethe beneath his laconic rendition of Pixie's despair upon finding her first husband, Ezra's father, in bed with another man.
"She got the gun when she left my real dad and decided to use her body to make a political statement, a statement that was never clear to me, but obviously hinged on the practice of having sex with a lot of men." Pixie is a tragic blend of insecurity and determination. She carries the trauma of abuse in her childhood with her, as a second self, but always tries to reinvent herself despite it. Her self-knowledge is intermittent, often confused. "I was only vaguely aware that I hated men because they took my beauty personally, like I'd done something to please them," she realizes after her breakdown.
Awareness in The Miss America Family is a double-edged sword. Reflecting back on her mother's revelation about the abuse Pixie suffered as a child, a revelation that nearly destroyed her, she says, "I realized my mother saved me twice: once when she gave me a lie and once when she gave me the truth." The truth will out, whether gently or destructively. In this novel it does both.
Tess Lewis has published translations from French and German and writes essays for the Hudson Review and the New Criterion. She has a master's degree in English literature from Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes scholar.