Like many authors, Lisa Tognola couldn’t help but see a reflection of herself in the characters of her first book. Tognola’s debut novel “As Long As It’s Perfect,” to be released Oct. 15, follows a stay-at-home mom — like the author — as she takes on the role of assistant contractor in nearby Rye. She and her husband sink all of their money into rebuilding a new house while trying to sell their old one, all of which happens on the cusp of the real estate market crash more than a decade ago.
The protagonist, Janie Margolis, is obsessed with the pursuit of perfection in her ventures, even while facing potential financial ruin in an unstable economy and the already risky business of flipping homes. Naturally, these themes did not appear out of nowhere, said Tognola.
“I couldn’t not write the book. My husband and I knocked down a house and built a new one when our whole nation was on the brink of a financial collapse in 2007,” said Tognola. “When we started construction, I experienced moments that were too incredible not to capture, and those moments inspire some of the scenes in my novel.”
The writing of the novel itself depicts the perfectionist nature of its protagonist as she describes in-depth things like cabinet hinges and tile designs for kitchen floors. As Janie spends money she doesn’t have, in a quest for fulfillment and perfection, she and her husband find themselves unable to sell their old home and their marriage is nearly ruined in the process.
“If you think ‘This Old House’ meets ‘War of the Roses’ with a little Ricky and Lucy thrown in, that’s the book,” said Tognola.
For the past 12 years, Tognola, like her book’s protagonist, has been a stay-at-home mom to three children. Though she considers it one of the most important and toughest jobs in the world, she couldn’t help but feel unproductive when others would ask “what it is she does all day.” As a former humor columnist at The Alternative Press, Tognola knew writing was something she enjoyed and made her feel fulfilled.
“Writing this book made me feel alive and it awakened a part of me that really hadn’t been tapped into in a long time,” said Tognola. “It was a thrilling experience to start capturing some of the moments I was experiencing and transforming them into a fictional story that kind of paralleled my own life.”
Though Tognola currently lives in New Jersey, her book is set in Rye and the immediate surrounding Westchester area, including a chapter specifically about Scarsdale. The area is known for its real estate market and expensive properties, said Tognola, as well as its reputation of being an ideal place to live.
“It’s security Janie is searching for with her husband; the perfect place to live where she could feel safe and secure and a place that has it all, much like Scarsdale,” said Tognola. “She’s looking for proximity to a large financial center, because her husband’s a New York City banker, she’s looking for a good school system for the kids. She’s looking for a sense of community, whether you can walk to the farmers market and enjoy backyard barbecues with the neighbors. But they’re also very expensive places to live, so the question is: Can she afford to build a new house there without losing the very safety and security that she’s longing for?”
Tognola described writing the book as both an exhilarating and humbling experience. She would find herself hopping out of bed in the middle of the night and running downstairs to write, she said. She also experienced dozens and dozens of rejections and the arduous process of researching potential representation, tailoring query letters to each one and sending hard copies of her materials — only to be shut down, time and again.
“Needless to say, I am now on a first name basis with my postal clerk,” said Tognola. “It was very frustrating because in a year you’re working so hard and it just seems everyone else was getting published besides me. Even my interior designer was getting published.”
Though the book is filled with descriptions of the nitty-gritty of building a house, choosing the perfect designer to create a kitchen and the differences that made a certain faucet more ideal than another, the deeper themes are what Tognola hopes readers garner from reading her debut novel.
“This is a story about love and longing and money and nobility, and I think it’s one that’s deepened by characters who are grappling with issues of image and identity in the wake of financial collapse,” said Tognola. “It builds on these areas of keeping up with the Joneses and these conflicting values of living within your means and, and wanting it all and why we try so hard to impress others. And how can we be just happy being who we are and not caring what others think.”