I have known Anna Lefler since 2008, when we met as contributors to the Los Angeles Moms Blog, and consider her a friend. I was happy to be offered an advance copy of her first published novel, and while I admit to being predisposed in its favor, I have attempted to set that aside as much as possible in forming my opinions about it.
The intense upper-middle-class parental rat race engulfing the Hawthorne family in Meg Mitchell Moore’s The Admissions is just beginning for the Underwoods of Anna Lefler’s first novel, Preschooled—they would make good companion reads.
Justine and Greg Underwood have succeeded in getting their daughter Emma into Margaret Askew’s prestigious Santa Monica preschool, Garden of Happiness, and they’re about to find out what an education awaits them. Well, Justine is, at any rate; attorney Greg is too busy with a demanding caseload (and an overly-attentive associate) to get very involved, but he can’t avoid seeing how Justine has been sucked into the school’s power-mom vortex as chair of its annual fundraising auction. He doesn’t see just how much pressure Justine’s under from Margaret, though. Margaret’s made it clear that the stakes for the auction are high, but she hasn’t told anyone that if it doesn’t meet its goals, she could lose the school in a divorce settlement. And Justine doesn’t want Greg to see how dealing with one of the other preschool parents, who happens to have been her grad-school boyfriend, is affecting her.
Justine’s narrative runs parallel with that of Ruben, who has surprised everyone including himself by becoming Garden of Happiness’ only “power dad.” When he and his wife traded roles—she went back to a full-time job, he stayed home to take care of their twins and work on his stand-up comedy and writing—he reluctantly agreed to take on her school-parent tasks, but never expected to become so absorbed by them that they might change his creative direction.
This is Anna Lefler’s first published novel, but she has been a standup comic and comedy writer, and she draws on those experiences in writing Ruben. She’s also a Berkeley grad who left a public-relations career for marriage and full-time motherhood, so she shares some of Justine’s background as well. And I don’t doubt she has plenty of experience with the power moms of Santa Monica and West Los Angeles. That said, there’s no indication that Preschooled is autobiographical; however, it is clearly informed by real life, and in the best possible way. The characters and situations feel recognizable, if exaggerated for comic effect, and that makes the comedy feel honest and earned.
I am privileged to know and like Anna, and I truly wanted to like this book. I’m very happy to say that I did. Preschooled is engaging, funny, and good-hearted, and those are all qualities I would have expected from her first novel.
Behind the toddler-proof gate of Santa Monica’s exclusive Garden of Happiness, it’s the grown-ups who are getting schooled.
When new preschool parent Justine discovers that the man who broke her heart back in grad school is a dad in her daughter’s class, she tells herself she’s immune to the superficial charms of the ex she calls “the crapwizard.” But when his presence opens a time tunnel of potent memories from her life before motherhood, she must find a way to defuse her old attraction to him before it undermines her marriage.
Then there’s Ruben, rookie stay-at-home dad and standup comic who quits his day job to pursue his TV-writing dream on his wife’s condition that he take her place among the “power mommies” on the school committees.
And ruling the sand box with an iron fist is Margaret, whose ongoing divorce from her dentist-turned-New Age-surfer husband forces her to rely on her dubious people skills in order to keep the school that has become the cornerstone of her identity.
When the new school year kicks off with a flight-risk rabbit named Ozone, a school secretary in desperate need of a social filter, and some double-barreled committee recruiting tactics, it’s not all juice and cookies for Justine, Ruben, and Margaret as they struggle to play nice.