Memphis native Elizabeth Passarella’s second collection of funny essays, It Was an Ugly Couch Anyway, covers a lot of ground, both personally and existentially. She writes, “If the wildness and brokenness of the past few years have taught me anything, it is that whatever you think is solid in this world will shift, and that includes your strongest-held opinions about yourself. … I hope these stories remind you, as they have me, that we have less control than we think, that the hard parts don’t last forever, and that apartment dreams can come true. You just need a lot of patience and a dumpster.”
Passarella’s own apartment dream forms the collection’s unifying theme, conveyed in four essays spread through the book. “Most prudent people sell their homes when they have an idea of where they’ll be moving and a plan for how to get there,” she writes. “We sold our apartment because the New York real estate market seemed to be on a hot streak, and I had one promising conversation with an elderly woman who said her late husband told her — from heaven — that our family was supposed to buy her place.” As the story progresses of their on-again, off-again relationship with the new apartment (larger than their own but in the same building) and its slightly kooky owner, Passarella finds opportunities to hold forth on such topics as growing up in the South, her particularly liberal brand of evangelical Christianity, her work as a writer, her relationships with her husband and three children, and her love for New York City.
In a fascinating essay about her experiences at various publications, including Southern Living and InStyle, she shares tips she learned while working for famed editor Anna Wintour at Vogue, including the proper shade of nail polish for a pedicure (nude or pale pink). She also talks about her reasons for leaving Vogue. While she has mostly positive things to say about the magazine, when a co-worker describes a potential subject for an article by saying, “She’s Southern. But, you know, polished,” it sticks in her craw. “Everyone’s math is different when it comes to how much you are willing to change or cover up to fit in, whether it’s at a job or a garden club.” Passarella writes. “Every cool club you want to be in is never as great as you think it will be.”
Passarella is an engaging storyteller who generally manages to find a humorous angle, even when describing her father accidentally backing a car over her when she was a child, the discovery of her husband’s heart condition, or the time she lost her six-year-old son (briefly) in Times Square on Christmas Eve. In “A Chapter of Questionable Opinions,” she voices her unconventional views on such diverse topics as Ivy League colleges, open kitchens, Atlantic Coast beaches, and the peer pressure surrounding therapy: “[T]here is a chorus of voices in my life (and by life I mean Instagram) not-so-gently implying that everyone should be in therapy, and if I am not, I am living a life of darkness, unaware of the joy and fulfillment that could be mine.”
Earthy, articulate, and uninhibited with a wicked sense of humor, Passarella eschews the idea of “too much information” and playfully devotes an entire essay to urinary incontinence: “I began to enjoy running at age forty-three, during a pandemic, right around the time I started peeing on myself every time I coughed.” Finally, she realizes that her body “is capable of so much, but it still leaks — pee, tears, swear words — because I’m still human. I take great pride in the fact that it is imperfect and slowly descending back to the dust, but it carries me home, where my family and a change of pants are waiting.”
Tina Chambers has worked as a technical editor at an engineering firm and as an editorial assistant at Peachtree Publishers, where she worked on books by Erskine Caldwell, Will Campbell, and Ferrol Sams, to name a few. She lives in Chattanooga.
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