In the opening scene of “Happily Ever Before,” a novel co-written by comedienne Melissa Peterman and writer-producer-marketing executive Aimee Pitta, a father, who is out rearranging snow, meets his fate via snowplough accident and is thereafter referred to by his only two daughters as “Popsicle.”
This nickname for the protagonists’ newly dead dad captures perfectly the kind of Minnesotan absurdism that runs through this glib and funny mock fairytale, which is sort of “The Princess and the Pea” retold as “The Sister and the Fetus.”
Known for her role as Barbra Jean on “Reba” and Bonnie on “Baby Daddy” (and Hooker #2 in “Fargo”), Minnesota-bred Peterman is actually as much book fanatic as she is actress (therefore, she’s quite a book fanatic), so writing a novel seemed a logical next move.
Peterman met co-author and fellow book fan Aimee Pitta at a book club. The two soon realized they had much in common. They both loved to read, laugh, eat, and try new things, and they both had sisters and wombs. So, the two decided to join forces and conceive together a story that would make people read, laugh, eat, take risks and maybe even pay it forward with their own version of sister-to-sister generosity.
“Happily Ever Before” is the story of a pair of sisters, one whose uterus isn’t hospitable, and the other whose life quite isn’t. The more organized sister, who loves color-coding and labels, can’t get any embryo to stay for gestation. The messier one can’t seem to get a decent man to stay for repeated acts of procreation. The former asks the latter to be her surrogate, and the rest is, well, funny.
The characters of the novel are an amalgamation of people that Peterman (and likely Pitta) has come across in life, and several speak with the same bubbly cadence that has made Peterman’s television characters resonate with so many folks over the course of so many years.
These amalgamated characters’ names are unique. In addition to nicknames like “Popsicle,” a couple of the women have men’s names – like George and Charlie. This must be due to Peterman’s sense of irony and perhaps also to Pitta’s experience as a professional movie “retitler,” where the goal is always to create names that are memorable.
When asked about the meaning of her own name (I’m always curious to find out what lies behind the funny), Peterman lamented that she didn’t have much of a story. Her mom wanted to name her Melissa and so did. So, in the spirit of surrogacy, because Peterman didn’t have a story, co-author and pseudo-sister Aimee Pitta delivered hers.
Pitta’s parents named her Aimee after her aunt Aimee, whose real name was Armenia, after her older brother, whom she never met because he was hit by trolley in Brooklyn when he was five. (So this is from whence the opening snowplough scene sprang!)
When Aimee’s aunt Armenia was a teenager, her other aunt Grace (coincidentally, the name of one of the novel’s protagonists) thought that since they were first-generation, off-the-boat Italians, Armenia needed a more American name. They changed her name to Aimee after the actress Anouk Aimee. (Clearly, they weren’t going to go with Anouk.)
In Catholic school, Pitta took her grandma’s name Conchetta as her confirmation name, but after the nuns insisted that she assume the name of a saint, she added her mother’s name Rose.
William Shakespeare would be pleased!
On the theme of amalgamation and names (and digging for clues), I asked Peterman whom she would most like to be if she were an amalgamation of, say, three renowned people. Peterman immediately supplied Carol Burnett, John Irving and Steve Martin. Carol Burnett was her choice for obvious reasons, as she is the quintessential comedienne; John Irving represents Peterman’s love of books; and Steve Martin stands for not only whimsy but also artistic expression across many genres. (Also, Peterman’s husband of nearly 15 years suspiciously resembles him.)
Where does Peterman get her humor? She credits her parents for whom everything, no matter how serious, is fodder for a joke. This family trait has not been lost on her six year-old son, who Peterman says recently offered to her in a deep, movie-trailer voice, “I want to be you.”
On the challenges of co-writing a novel with a friend, Peterman recounted the relatively seamless process. She and Pitta got together and hammered out an outline. For each meeting, they agreed on a list of scenes they had to write that day. Peterman paced and told stories and acted out scenes and laid out dialogue. Pitta, the marketing executive, acted as muse, sounding-board, co-improviser and recorder, and later put their discoveries into prose.
Despite having two powerful cooks (like the baby in the book), the story is cohesive and light in tone and a fun and fast read. The book could be passed from lap to lap at a book club and fussed over like a baby.
Why the template of fairytale? Peterman suggested that many girls and women subscribe to a fairytale notion of marriage and family — that everything will be breezy and will go as planned and everyone involved will live ‘happily ever after.’ Of course, most people’s lives are more complicated than that, and fairytales are really just fairytales.
Then again, with the right amount of humor and levity of spirit and brotherhood (or in this case sisterhood) happy endings can be realized.
Peterman’s goal for “Happily Ever Before” is a sequel to the novel and perhaps, ultimately, a movie or two. It would certainly be a hoot if the grandparents were played by Carol Burnett, John Irving and Steve Martin. One of the three would have to play the ghost of dead dad “Popsicle.” I vote for Carol Burnett.
“Happily Ever Before” is available in e-pub versions for Kindle, Nook and iBook and can be purchased at amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.
Melissa Peterman can be seen weekly in ABC’s new comedy “Baby Daddy” and daily in reruns of “Reba.”
WIN A FREE BOOK!
Those of you readers who write in the comment section the most compelling renditions of whom you would most like to be if you were an amalgamation of three people along with an explanation OR the story of your name OR something generous you did for a sibling OR a funny way to ask a sibling if you can borrow her womb (“I’m baking cookies. May I borrow a cup of your uterus?”) will win a free book.