By Kate Willette
Imagine a mother absorbed with the message of her time: Work hard, make lots of money, raise capable children, have nutritious family meals, maintain deep friendships, be emotionally available, contribute to your community, do everything. Don’t worry. Be happy.
Now give her a job among ruthless millionaires at Microsoft, but make it clear that no matter how hard she tries she will never be one. Add in three children and marry her to Anthony, a kind, cheerful man who could not be less ambitious (at one point she compares him to a sloth) and you get Margot Page. Paradise Imperfect is her story.
A story written with humor, insight and irony throughout, Margot has no problem confronting her demons. Here she is at the end of yet another ten-hour workday in Seattle, chewing her nails at a red light:
So far today, I:
· had procured zero items for Hannah’s middle-school auction—just as I had yesterday, and the day before that,
· had forgotten to pack a snack for Harry to eat between school and practice, and
· was right on track for making Ivy the last child at daycare to be picked up. Bad-mother hat trick!
Later that evening, she and Anthony walk the kids a few blocks to the home of one of the millionaires for an evening that does a big crazy dance on every one of her exposed insecurities. Fabulously expensive art, furniture, electronics. A sweet stay-at-home mom whose offhand comments about her own privileged life provoke a frustration in Margot that’s so bitter you can taste it.
That’s the night that ends with Margot trying to soothe herself to sleep by making a list of what she’ll definitely get done tomorrow. She fails. She is un-soothed. She is, instead, wide awake and suddenly sure what needs to happen next: they should all go spend a year in Costa Rica, in a town they once visited for a week. She shakes Anthony awake and poses the plan. Here is the entirety of his part of the conversation:
Then he goes back to sleep. (He may just be the drollest husband in literature.)
No matter where they go, though, he isn’t going to deliver what she wants from him. He can’t change her, and he doesn’t see any need to change himself. She wants to be in charge of every plan? Okay. She wants to cram every second of all their lives with her personal version of success, purpose and meaning? Go for it.
And yet it works—the marriage, the family, the year in a foreign country. It’s Anthony, in his charming, dissociated way, who underlines the metaphor. From Costa Rica, Margot is on a chat window with him, using a broken keyboard with no space bar. He’s away on a quick trip to Seattle. At one point, looking at her jammed-together words on his screen, he kindly makes her an offer:
Here are some extra spaces. You seem to be out again.
That’s it exactly. Spaces. She’s been so desperately out of spaces for so long. Here she is in the rainforest:
Standing at our laundry line, I could see past the guava tree, over the foothills and down, down, to the thin blue band of the Gulf . . . I walked back and forth. I remembered to look at the sky.
Costa Rica turns out to be about space. Margot is airing out her life in this book; she’s lifting up each scene—beautiful or troubling—in its turn and holding it still for our appraisal.
She wrote Paradise Imperfect with ten years’ distance between today and Costa Rica, which means we get a pleasantly detached view of things that were definitely not pleasant in the moment. The children are now mostly grown and happy. The job has not consumed her. The mid-thirties woman we get to know has become a mid-forties woman it’s easy to like, and this sharing of her loopy, loving year on the side of a mountain in the rainforest is a gift.