If you remember Jack Wagner, the handsome 80’s teen idol who crooned “All I Need” and broke hearts as Frisco on General Hospital, you’ll get a big kick out of the debut novel from Elise Juska. Getting Over Jack Wagner is a sign that the Pocket Book’s fledgling Downtown Press line has a lot to offer. One caveat, though - this is Chick Lit in the literal sense. The novel’s hopeful ending has nothing to do with romance and everything to do with its heroine reaching a pivotal moment in her life.
While some women go for men who are athletic or spiritual, 26 year old Eliza has always been a sucker for rock stars. Even though the ones she’s been involved with never make it beyond local Philadelphia bars or coffee shops, Eliza is attracted to her wanna-be rock star boyfriends’ “way of thinking deeply - feeling deeply - living against the grain.” But inevitably, reality always intrudes and Eliza dumps each one when they do something unforgivably uncool. In her spare time, Eliza drafts an advice book for other women with the same issues, but meanwhile she supports herself writing copy for a travel agency.
After breaking up with her latest disappointment, Karl the bassist, Eliza takes stock of her life and realizes everyone around her is changing. Her married sister is pregnant, her best friend is settling down, and even her buddy Andrew is using a cell phone to keep in touch with his girlfriend. So why is she still stuck in her old routines? After a brief but intense withdrawal from reality, Eliza realizes that there’s more to her than a “brooding rock-star chick.” And the book she is writing starts to look a lot less about the rock stars and a great deal more about its narrator.
There isn’t a lot of action in Getting Over Jack Wagner, but that never bothered Seinfeld, and it doesn’t limit Eliza either. In fact, it reads at times like a female version of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. Half of the story consists of Eliza’s reminiscences about the rock stars of her life, starting with Jack Wagner and the other musicians (John Waite, Rick Springfield, Duran Duran) she and her friends in the Official Rock Star Fan Club worshipped with preadolescent sincerity. She then moves on to the relationship disasters that all started out as prospective soul mates. The hilarious and occasionally pathetic flashbacks are interspersed with Eliza’s reactions to the changes around her, including a doomed blind date that sends her into a tailspin.
Despite the differences in our lives - I’m a suburban 40 year old mom, she’s a 26 year old rebel with pierced navel and nose - I couldn’t help identifying with Eliza. I spent my first year at college convinced that English majors must be deep and sensitive (actually, they were jerks just like any other guys). I got over that delusion a lot quicker than Eliza, but I recall that yearning for someone intense and real who would save me. And I share Eliza’s fierce loyalty to good music, along with her disdain for her stepfather, whose CD collection consists entirely of Greatest Hits albums, and her horrified reaction to the blind date who doesn’t care what type of music he listens to - “whatever’s on,” he casually remarks. To Eliza, that’s tantamount to sacrilege.
I also appreciated the fact that Eliza knows why she fixates on rock stars - her father’s abandonment of the family when Eliza was only 10 is a big factor - but that doesn’t stop her from repeating her mistakes. Too often, books confuse emotional epiphanies with solutions, but in real life insight isn’t always enough. Juska doesn’t offer easy answers, and the book doesn’t end with Eliza waltzing off into the sunset, arm in arm with Mr. Right. However, there is a critical interaction that makes her look at her life in a new light, and the last page finds her optimistic that someday soon she will be ready for a real relationship
If you can appreciate a well-written book with great ideas for mix tapes, but can also tolerate ambiguity in your ending, you’ll find Getting Over Jack Wagner a welcome change of pace from cookie-cutter Chick Lit books. It may be, in fact, “all you need.”