Novel Explores Costs of Keeping Up with the Joneses

Lisa Tognola’s debut book, 'As Long As It’s Perfect,' was over a decade in the making.

Photo of author Lisa Tognola courtesy of Kathryn Huang

Lisa Tognola does not blame New Jersey for plunging her into the personal and financial straits that inspired her debut novel, As Long As It’s Perfect. But the Los Angeles transplant will admit that ambition—a quality our state’s polished suburbs helped her cultivate—contributes to the parallels between protagonist Janie Margolis, and herself. 

Like Tognola, Janie is a wife and mother who dreams of raising her family in a big, beautiful house. And like Tognola, she takes on the role of assistant contractor when, on the cusp of the 2008 financial crisis, she and her husband tear down a house to build a “perfect” one in its place. Instead of domestic bliss, something closer to destitution and divorce ensues.

“Somebody asked me the other day what percent of the novel is true, like it’s a gallon of milk, like 1 percent of it might be real,” says Tognola, 53, whose move to New Jersey 25 years ago was due to her husband Chris’s job in banking. “You can’t really break it down like that. Sometimes I used real life for the plot and made-up stuff for the details, and sometimes I made up the plot and used real details. But the main plot elements are true.”

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The Chatham resident, who will give a reading January 16 at Short Stories Bookshop* in Madison, has fully recovered from the real estate debacle that resulted in the book, published in October by She Writes Press. But she hasn’t stopped learning new lessons. Among them: Writing is hard. “I banged out this book in just 12 years,” she says. “It seriously took me that long.”

During those dozen years, her younger daughter, Elana, now 18, graduated from preschool and entered college. Her other children, Harrison and Hannah, are 21 and 24, respectively.  

Tognola hopes all three will benefit from her exploration, in life and in print, of the costs of keeping up with the Joneses. “A deeper theme of the book—and I think it’s a relevant and meaty topic—is the conflicting values of living within your means and wanting it all,” Tognola says. Ultimately, “there has to be a reconciliation between trying to impress others and being happy just being yourself.”

*Short Stories recently announced it will close its doors on or before March 31, 2020.

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