GEORGE & LIZZIE
By Nancy Pearl
278 pp. Touchstone. $25.
The retired librarian Nancy Pearl loves books. In fact, Library Journal named her librarian of the year in 2011. She appears on public radio to talk about books, has a monthly television show in Seattle called “Book Lust With Nancy Pearl” and is also the author of “Book Lust,” a collection of recommended “reading for every mood, moment and reason.” With this in mind, approaching “George & Lizzie,” Pearl’s first novel, feels like heading out to sea with a collector of nautical charts. You assume she appreciates them very much, and that she knows how to use them.
Or you hope. Because no one wants to see an ardent lover of maps end up in a mud flat. Sailing along with “George & Lizzie,” I often clutched at its sides, sure the vessel’s rigging was off-kilter. Occasionally I felt queasy, unsure of the direction we were heading. But the prose was sturdy and the subject matter provocative. Pearl makes regular references to other books, and I clung to our shared favorites (like Dodie Smith’s old-fashioned tale of English girlhood, “I Capture the Castle”) as if to a life preserver.
“George & Lizzie” is a peculiar romance since it charts a relationship in which one party, Lizzie, is merely going through the motions. Watching a person take someone else (i.e., George) for granted can be dreary. But this isn’t happening in a sad, Swedish, Ingmar Bergman kind of way; rather, it’s infused with an American rom-com cheeriness. George and Lizzie meet at an Ann Arbor bowling alley in the early 1990s. She’s a sophomore at the University of Michigan, majoring in English. He’s studying to be a dentist. She’s self-medicating a broken heart with pot; he’s distracted because he’s out with his dream girl from dental school. Yet soon George and Lizzie start dating.
Lizzie has a secret. In high school, also in Ann Arbor, where her emotionally detached parents are psychology professors at the university, she slept with every one of the starters on the football team. Her best friend, Andrea, had proposed the idea as a way to be adventurous, “like a sign that we really lived.” The next day, Andrea sensibly declared her own plan “nuts.” But Lizzie plowed ahead with what they called the Great Game, doggedly working through the lineup from the middle of September until the middle of April. “It was a chore, like slogging through ‘Vanity Fair’ had been the previous year.” (Sing it, sister.)
From one of Pearl’s detours into Woody-Allenesque whimsy, a list of “Why George Loves Lizzie,” we know that he adores Lizzie beyond all things (her breasts enter the list at No. 4). But her fear is that any man who knows about this dicey episode from her past won’t be able to see beyond it — and she has some evidence to support that theory. Her first college boyfriend, Jack McConaghey, dumped her after he found out about the Great Game. And Jack was a catch: a sensitive soul who shared her admiration for A. E. Housman and was at least open to reading her beloved Edna St. Vincent Millay (unlike her misogynistic professor, who calls Millay “That, ‘Oh God, the pain’ girl?”).
Lizzie’s longing for Jack steers the narrative for years thereafter. Poor George. Poor Lizzie. The Great Game is her great trauma. It merits more examination than it gets, if only to persuade us that it’s plausible. Pearl punctuates her narrative with descriptions of the players and their positions (“the kicker,” “the strong safety” and so on) but they’re just a muddle of eager, clumsy, amiable boys. Even though Lizzie is stubborn, even considering that her cartoonish parents treated her like a psych experiment, it doesn’t seem conceivable that she would play this game. “I guess I wonder why you did it,” Jack tells her. “It just doesn’t seem like you.”