Self-help books often offer assessments, forms, quizzes, and other participatory activities, but this memoir made me respond in a different way with laughter and contemplation. Although she begins her book a little shakily with an over-the-top neighboorhood conflict, Jennifer Niesslein adeptly weaves her personal life (a sick dog; a patient, cooperative husband; and a too-wise-for-his-age son) into an entertaining report of her quest for self-improvement.
Oprah motivates this quest when she looks directly at Niesslein through the TV screen and asks, "Are you happy?" This question sends Niesslein on an introspective journey and ends with her listing of self-improvement projects: house, finances, marriage, mothering, community, health, spirituality. She begins with the house, making efforts to clean up the clutter, dirt, and dog hair, and persuade her husband and son to practice "gracious living."
Niesslein does all the research in such a way that if the reader should be tempted to try it at home, she can order the books, check out the website, and take the online self-improvement quizzes to achieve her own goals.
While working on the house, Niesslein explains how to "edit a room," a perfect solution for a writer but not very effective in her house. Then she tries feng shui, which is somewhat effective. A neighborhood progressive dinner provides the impetus to at least straighten the first floor. Then comes the extreme (and funny) solution of holy water and a mantra to "spiritually cleanse the first floor." But eventually gracious living loses its glamour. It's time to move on to the next part of the plan—finances.
And so Niesslein goes through the process of self-improvement. Each chapter tells another story of her efforts to achieve perfection. After "The Money," she works on "The Marriage," then "The Kid," "The Attempt to Screw My Head on Straight," "The People Other Than Brandon and Caleb," "The Body," and "The Soul." Here she learns where happiness lies. Not in a religious or spiritual experience, but—well, read the book. It's the most satisfying ending I've read in a long time.
I especially liked the way Niesslein incorporates the everyday challenges into her quest for perfection: putting their precious old dog to rest, volunteering for the PTA, editing her magazine, and spending quality time with her husband. Although the cover design was a turn-off for me and I wasn't sure I wanted to read about someone's revelations through the phases of self-help, I found myself eagerly looking forward to the next section and actually wanting to take some of those online quizzes that might also lead me toward a happier life.
Jennifer Niesslein co-founded Brain, Child, which premiered in March 2000. She lives with her husband, son, and dogs in Charlottesville, Virginia. Practically Perfect in Every Way is her first book. You can read her blog.
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