Jen Lancaster’s first foray into fiction faces an identity crisis that would never occur in her memoirs. Mixing her trademark sarcastic commentary with a fluffy renovation-gone-wrong plot, If You Were Here jams her strong voice into a form that can’t support it.
The decision to move out of Chicago to the suburbs doesn’t come easily for Mia, a YA novelist with a successful Amish-teen-zombie series, an HGTV-addicted husband named Mac, and a menagerie of badly behaved pets. Trawling the in-budget options in tony Abingdon Cambs feels like a chore until the day she and Mac get a glimpse of a sprawling, slightly out-of-date mansion with a bit part in Sixteen Candles. Dizzy at the prospect of owning Jake Ryan’s house, Mia rejects sounder advice and dives into what becomes a DIY renovation after her former landlord successfully blackballs her from getting contracts with any legitimate construction company in the district. Fielding angry petitions from neighbors who were hoping for a nature preserve instead of a McMansion, and living in sub-camping conditions, Mia scrambles to finish her latest zombie romance in time to stay ahead of the bills and end up with a place that feels like home.
The clueless-but-well-meaning new homeowner is a familiar trope, but Lancaster does little to make her beaten-down protagonists likeable outside of their plain unsuitability for the task at hand, short of an early sequence in which a local gang targets their city condo. Because Lancaster doesn’t locate her characters clearly, they never have the opportunity to develop in a the way she did in her memoirs Such A Pretty Fat and Bitter Is The New Black, tales of begrudging self-improvement and minor irritation. Mia starts and ends If You Were Here spoiled, idle, and not all that grateful for those who eventually come to her rescue through a laundry list of slapstick mishaps.
If You Were Here’s pop-culture detours, including a John Hughes reference on nearly every page, are well within Lancaster’s comfort zone, but don’t contribute to the plot, and her diatribes on the absurdity of celebrity seem out of place coming from the myopic Mia. Her patter doesn’t sustain interest through to her weak-willed epiphany on appreciating what she already had. Although it bears many of Lancaster’s stylistic thumbprints, If You Were Here doesn’t have the same power; truth is often stranger than fiction, and in this case, it’s also a lot more fun.