For a book about a dysfunctional family, there's a certain element of magic that shines through the Samsons' various predicaments. Stan may say that "Coincidences do happen" (34.78), but the sheer amount of reunions, changes of heart, and reversals of logic that happen in this story almost makes it seem like there's a supernatural force behind it all. Perhaps that's another reason for Clarke's selection of third-person omniscient narration—a bird's-eye view of the story gives it the feel that something larger than the characters is arranging all of this.
Lily's wish for a perfect party at Nan's carries a whimsical quality in itself: "She kept dreaming of Nan's garden, of flowers and streamers and fairy lights twinkling in the trees […] Wasn't such a day something everyone had a right to?" (27.36). What's even more incredible, though, is that it turns out better than she could have planned, so much so that she "couldn't get her head around it all" (42.1). Daniel asks her out, Sef turns out to be a real person, and Pop insists that Clara try on his mother's wedding dress. Against all odds, victory abounds.
The fact that Lily gets her wish is magical in itself, but the day is so full of surprises that it rises above her expectations. As she thinks to herself, "It was wonderful but weird all the same, the kind of miracle that happened in fairy tales and certainly never occurred in families like theirs" (42.7). When even the main character can't believe quite how well things work out, we know the tone of the book we're reading is whimsical. This book dares to imagine just how good life can be.
"Can a person always be a teenager?" Lily writes in her lecture notes on Hamlet near the beginning of the book. "Or always middle-aged? (Like me?)" (6.9). Obviously, One Whole and Perfect Day is packed with young people in the midst of change. And when it comes to Lily and Lonnie, they have a whole lot of classic young adult stuff on their plate. Think: crushes, school, and navigating family drama. Whenever characters like these are at the heart of a book, chances are decent we're in young adult lit territory. And indeed, with this book, we are.
This book is also in the coming-of-age genre, though. Lily is discovering the disconnect between being a teenager and a housekeeper and trying to find the right balance for her life, Clara wants to find out who she is apart from her parents' dysfunctional marriage, and Lonnie's searching for his path in life. Even Jessaline, who's a minor character by comparison, is trying to get out from under her parents' thumb and choose a career she's passionate about.
But hold on just a minute… Is it possible for a coming-of-age novel to not just illustrate stories of young people entering adulthood, but also show older characters making similar entrances into different stages of life? This book sure does. And while coming-of-age books typically focus on young people making their way into adulthood, we think anyone can come of age in their own way at different points in their lives.
In this book, the younger characters' parents and grandparents also deal with increasing confusion about their roles in their children's lives. Think about Rose's struggle with loneliness and abandonment when Clara leaves home, or the way Stan feels out of place in "the way the world kept changing on him" (21.8). In the end, the book is as much about all of the characters entering new chapters in life as it is about Lily's struggle with being a teenager with adult responsibilities.
Whether we're talking about Jay Gatsby, Harry Potter, or even Ariel from The Little Mermaid, every great protagonist has one thing in common: Each has something he or she wants desperately, and is willing to do whatever it takes to get it. Lily Samson is no exception. All she wants is one day without family conflict, hurt feelings and tears, Pop's ax and racism, and Mom's old people ruining everything. You might even call it… One Whole and Perfect Day. Oh wait—that's exactly what Clarke's called it.
Throughout the book, the question of whether normalcy is even possible for her family haunts Lily. Their failure to be a "proper family" (1.1) inspires emotions ranging from anger to worry to depression; she considers them "freakish" (13.11) and ultimately thinks that they're just "too dysfunctional" (35.49). And since we as readers get the full picture of what life is like for Lily's family as well as Lily, we can see that she really does kind of get the short end of the stick in this bunch. The title, then, is a shout-out to what Lily wants, as well as what she usually doesn't get.
On the other hand, though, Lily still has hope that her dream of a perfect day might come true—in fact, that it's something that everyone is entitled to at least once. "Why shouldn't their family have one brilliant, perfect day?" she asks herself. "Wasn't such a day something everyone had a right to, a day you could always remember, no matter what happened to you ever after in your life? A whole perfect day?" (27.36). We can't say whether Lily's right in saying this, but one thing's for sure: She gets her wish. And when she does, the book's title comes true.
"Hullo, Dad" (42.69). It's a simple last line, but Lily's decision to talk to the father she's been so angry at and estranged from proves her tremendous growth from the beginning of the story to the end. A key part of Lily's journey in One Whole and Perfect Day is learning to not only love her family as they are, but forgive them for their wrongs. And the way Clarke chooses to reveal just how far Lily's come in this regard this is a particularly symbolic and powerful moment in the story.
Lily's dad is a pretty key figure in her life, and his abandonment of their family has dealt her a pretty serious wound. We know this because she mentions him in the second paragraph of the whole book: "She'd never even seen her father, and when his phone messages came at Christmas and birthdays, she found she didn't know what to call him: 'Dad' sounded awkward in her mouth" (1.2). We're even told that one time, he actually called her "Lolly" instead of Lily (2.21). Oops. Big time.
In the end, though, Lily not only chooses to forgive her father, but does so in a particularly meaningful way: She casually calls him "Dad" for the first time in her life. If that's not a huge expression of the book's call to accept and love our families, we don't know what is.
Here's the thing about Sydney: The place is huge. With a population of over four million, the area surrounding the city is made up of six hundred and fifty suburbs. Having said that, let's think about our story.
We know that Lonnie lives in Toongabbie, an industrial community about eighteen miles west of central Sydney, and that Pop and Nan live in Katoomba, a town in the Blue Mountains on the outskirts of the city. While we don't know the names of the suburbs Lily and Clara live in, we do know that they live at stops along the Sydney rail line.
So while all our characters may live in the same community, they're spread out in different parts of it. Clarke's narration shows this by giving us a panoramic view of what the characters are doing across the story's geography. Check out the beginning of Chapter 4 as an example: We see how "the winter night […] crept down from the mountains where Nan and Pop lived" and how "Lights came on in the streets and houses, in Lily and Marigold's place and in Lonnie's Boarding House for Gentlemen" (4.1). It's a bit of a bird's-eye view of the location.
More importantly, the geographical gaps between the characters reflect the many rifts between them in terms of generation, marriages, career choices, parental expectations, and yes, even ax incidents.
One Whole and Perfect Day is largely about these characters finding ways to move closer to each other and abandon their prejudices and grudges from the past. Clara attempts to separate herself from her parents' dysfunctional relationship, Lonnie tries to discover who he is independent of his family, Lily wants to bridge the gap between herself and other people her age, Pop must confront his disconnection with modern culture. The list goes on. And as it does, characters spend time either farther apart or closer together geographically.
Another key element of Sydney as a setting is the diversity of the community, which plays a huge role in the conflict of Clara and Lonnie's interracial relationship. Here's the short version (you can read the long version here): In the 1850s, Chinese people immigrated to Australia in the hopes of striking it rich. The supply of gold wasn't endless, though, and when it ran out, many immigrants chose to stay and make lives there. In 1901, though, the government passed the Immigrant Restriction Act, which significantly lowered immigration until it was lifted in the 1970s.
So how does this element affect the characters? Stan would have grown up in a time when the IRA was still in place and had a huge influence over the locals' views of foreigners. By contrast, Lily, Lonnie, and Clara have been raised in a multicultural society where Chinese people are part of the community. This racial component of Australian culture is another element that significantly divides the characters from each other.
One Whole and Perfect Day has relatable characters and a plot that's easy to get swept up into. It also, however, has so many characters that you may sometimes feel like a kindergarten teacher taking kids on a field trip—it takes a lot of work to keep them all in line. Furthermore, because you're getting all of their perspectives on the book's events, you'll probably wonder at times if the characters even saw the same thing happen at all.
This said, it might help to draw a character web that shows who is related to whom, who's dating whom, and who's currently feuding with whom. This is also a book that really benefits from a second reading—knowing how the whole thing ends drastically alters your impressions of the characters.
Linked stories are a literary genre where an author tells a larger story by zeroing in on the individual lives of a variety of related characters. James Joyce popularized the genre with his story collection Dubliners, but it's also seen in other books, like J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey. And as is the case with those literary classics, One Whole and Perfect Day unites the disparate lives of its characters.
Clarke brings her characters together in two contexts. First, they all live in Sydney, Australia and the surrounding region. Interestingly, the characters are physically linked within the book by the railway line that connects the suburbs to the hub of the city. The characters even pass each other's homes throughout the narration—for instance, just before Clara and Lonnie leave for the party Clara can "just make out the tip" of her parents' house's "red roof" (39.3). She may be trying to make her own way, but this geographic proximity means her family's never far.
Of course, the other link between the characters is their relationships to the Samson family, associations that get a major payoff at the end of the book when they're all united for Pop's birthday. In the book's final scene, Lily thinks:
[…] it was as if the ordinary world had mysteriously expanded, revealing all kinds of possibilities you'd never known existed or at least not for you. (42.58)
In a way, this is what happens to the world of Clarke's book through the use of linked stories: It expands it for readers and makes it real by revealing the relationships and conflicts within it. By hopping around from character to character, as their stories begin to come together in the end, we wind up with a much more vivid picture of their shared and individual lives. In weaving their stories together, the fabric of the larger story gets richer.
Ever come across an important heirloom or souvenir from a friend or family member? You probably felt a lot of emotions looking at it, from nostalgia to happiness to maybe a little bit of melancholy. Or maybe you felt what Stan feels when he discovers his mother's wedding dress in a trunk in his shed: regret. When he finds the dress, he flashes back to seeing it as a child and laughing at it along with his sister, saying it looked like "a nightie" (5.11). It's only now, as an old man, that he thinks of just how much the remark hurt must have hurt his mom.
Right off the bat, then, the wedding dress represents perspective. Stan sees both it and his behavior as a kid quite differently now than he did way back when, which reminds us as readers that thoughts, feelings, and opinions can all change. And Stan, of course, may be the character who shifts the most in this regard. So finding the dress sort of foreshadows some of the changes yet to come for Stan.
There's more to this garment, though. Like a strong family, the wedding dress is intricately and tightly woven. Stan observes this looking at the dress for the first time in years, "half expecting the beads to fall at his touch and scatter […] but they held fast, and he thought how things were made properly in those days, made to last" (5.15). Instead of feeling good when he finds the dress, though, Stan feels badly.
The discomfort he feels at finding the dress reflects his growing realization of his own family's troubles. His daughter is divorced, he and Lonnie aren't speaking, and his own mother and sister are both gone. "He wished he'd never found that wedding dress," he reflects later in the story. "Like a meal of bad oysters, it seemed to have unsettled him" (20.13). But while the dress is initially the cause of a mistake Stan wishes he could take back, it's ultimately what makes the family right again.
When May shows Lonnie the dress, he's struck by how it seems to be "made for" Clara—"except it belonged to Pop, and if Pop was a racist, as Lily said, then Clara would never get to wear it" (30.47). The awesome part, though, is that in spite of this, she does get to wear it. When the family reunites at Nan and Pop's at the end of the book, Clara tries on the dress, and it fits perfectly. So while the Samsons have gone through a lot of hard stuff, in the end we see that they, like the dress, are "made to last." Onward, Samsons.
Bury the hatchet. An ax to grind. Fly off the handle (the ax handle, that is). Isn't it funny how many expressions for anger and conflict involve potentially dangerous outdoor tools used to chop things up? We're pretty sure this wasn't lost on Clarke when she decided to make a failed ax-attack the core of Lonnie's conflict with his grandfather.
As the story goes, Pop went after Lonnie with an ax after Marigold told him that Lonnie was changing his career track—again. Furious, Pop "drew the ax out from behind his back and raised it. A flint of sunlight dazzled along its edge" (7.47). A college major is a pretty ridiculous thing to threaten to kill someone over, but it's just enough to drive a serious wedge between Lonnie and his grandfather.
And neither of them is willing to budge. "He didn't care if the kid got himself eaten alive," Stan thinks to himself as he recalls the incident. "He'd written him off. Lonnie was no grandson of his anymore" (30.54). Yikes. Also—just saying—but doesn't it seem like if anyone has a legit reason to be mad in the long term, it's Lonnie? He's the one who was threatened with an ax, after all.
Anyway, this conflict comes to a real (ax) head when Nan decides to throw Pop an eightieth birthday party as a way to force the two of them to make up. When neither Lonnie nor Pop is willing to move, however, Nan decides to take matters into her own hands: She takes away Pop's ability to threaten Lonnie by destroying the ax. She throws it down a gorge near their house, and its power actually seems to fade as it falls:
She saw it glint once as it went down, heard it clang against a rock […] and then there was a moment's silence until the final, faintest chung, a sound as small and harmless as a pebble flung into the stream. (25.28)
Just as the ax makes a "harmless" sound, so, too, do Lonnie and Pop finally start to let bygones be bygones, leaving their conflict in the past where it's also harmless. Both make overtures to visit each other, and Pop's encounter with Rose helps him heal the racism that would have made Lonnie's engagement to Clara a conflict. As Pop's ax illustrates, sometimes the best way to solve a conflict really is to bury the hatchet—or in this case, have your wife throw it off a cliff.
What is it about dead childhood pets? They haunt our memories and family photographs, lie eternally in our backyards, and cause us to spontaneously burst into tears from simply hearing the Old Yeller theme song. It's funny how our animal friends can come to symbolize our nostalgia for childhood and a kind of relationship that we just don't have with people. This is exactly what happens in One Whole and Perfect Day when Lily thinks the ghost of Lonnie's long-lost hamster is haunting her.
Lily first glimpses what she thinks might be Seely when she cuts class to make sure she didn't leave the teapot on. When Lonnie was in sixth grade, the hamster got out of his cage, and "Lonnie had claimed, still claimed, even now, that those mysterious scuttlings in their walls at night were made by […] an old, old Seely" (6.16). When she cautiously moves closer to the hamster corpse, she realizes it's not Seely at all, but a wet, gray dishcloth that her mother accidentally dropped on the floor.
But this isn't all. The next time Seely makes an appearance, he has blood on him—okay, actually, it's tandoori sauce. And yes, it's the washcloth again. This time, Lily just throws the thing away.
What's going on here? Is Lily delusional? Is Seely her imaginary dead hamster like Sef is Nan's imaginary friend? Worry not—Lily doesn't have a screw loose. Instead, Seely's a symbol of the incongruity in Lily's life.
What do we mean? Well, all kinds of stuff Lily's going through doesn't add up. She feels "middle-aged" (6.9) at age sixteen, is preoccupied with cooking and cleaning instead of boys and the latest Bestie issue, and—oh yeah, we almost forgot—her family's kind of nuts. To her, all of these things make about as much sense as an ancient hamster crawling around in the walls like a modern-day Mr. Jingles.
Furthermore, while Lily may be "the sensible one in the family" (2.1) and thinks that Lonnie is largely "like a toddler" (2.11), maybe part of her does want his fantasy about Seely being alive to be true. Even if it goes against her practical nature, perhaps she would like it if old Seely were still somewhere in the house, "perhaps with a wife and children" (6.16). Or maybe he's a grandpa now and carries a tiny ax. How's that for metafiction? Lily may be super on top of things, but Seely lets us know that maybe—just maybe—she'd like not to be. At least for a little while.
Ah, college dorm rooms. If you're still in high school, you have yet to experience the joy of living in a building with a bunch of other people, sharing a bathroom and, in this case, a telephone. One thing's for sure: Once you have a dorm room of your very own, you'll embrace the independence of living away from home. Unless, of course, you leave your parents' house on really bad terms, like Clara does. Then it can become a symbol of independence tainted with past pain.
Clara's one of those college kids who loves being on her own, and because she's not exactly happy with her dad right now, she kind of wants a trial separation. "It's like my own private place," she tells Jessaline, "and I don't want family in it, not yet, not till I've got over them" (22.5). Good luck with that one, Clara.
While absence from her family in a new place evokes self-discovery and individualism for Clara, it creates a completely different sensation for Rose, who recalls only "hollowness" (21.41) from her first time away from home—after her parents were killed. And her biggest fear is that her daughter is lonely like she was.
For Rose, seeing Clara's room is more than reassurance that her daughter is doing okay on her own. It's about knowing her daughter isn't going to leave her forever. "Surely it was she herself who felt abandoned," Rose realizes when she learns of Clara's engagement, "as she'd felt when her parents had died" (41.24). As Clara prepares to be married, her room is the place where both she and Rose move on from the past and begin a new stage in their family. Clara claims it as her own space, but once she lets her mother in, we know they'll go forward together. Aw.
One Whole and Perfect Day starts off basically like any other young adult novel: with a teenager being generally dissatisfied with her life, social status, parental relationships, appearance, and pretty much anything else you can think of. For the first two chapters, it pretty much goes on like that. But then you hit Chapter 3, and if you're anything like us, we're pretty sure your head started to spin. Then, there's a giant name dump at the beginning of the fourth chapter and we start changing points of view all over the place. What is this madness?
Here's what's up: Third person omniscient narration, where the story takes you into the minds of not just one character, but multiple others as well. It may not be something you've seen a ton of in your reading adventures, but it has a pretty well-grounded basis in literature, from The Lord of the Rings series to Ian McEwan's Atonement to pretty much everything William Faulkner ever wrote.
Think about this: If Clarke had chosen to tell the story only from Lily's point of view, how would the story have been different? Immediately, we lose a lot of things—the conflict between Lonnie and Pop, Lonnie's struggle to find himself, Clara's daddy issues, and so on.
These things might seem like distractions from the main story at first, but they're actually essential to Lily's character development. Without the perspectives of other characters, all we have is Lily trying to manipulate her family so they can have a perfect party for Pop and drooling over Daniel Steadman's picture in the yearbook. No offense to our Lil, but that's not a very interesting read.
So here's the bottom line: While Lily is our protagonist, the story is about more than just her. It's the story of a family that's been wounded and their struggle to heal and forgive, and we need the rest of the characters' stories to understand the complete picture—not just what Lily sees.
While bouncing from one person's head to another may make this a bit more challenging to read, every single character's point of view is necessary. Lonnie sums up the need for a third-person omniscient narrator perfectly: "You simply couldn't tell about people. People were mysterious" (30.27). In the case of the Samsons, the use of multiple viewpoints gives us the information we need to really understand their dynamic and their individual journeys. Without it, we'd have a way different book in our hands.
"They're awkward and they're Aussie, their daughter's kind of bossy, they're one peculiar posse, the Samson family." (Bah-na-na-na! Snap! Snap!) Seriously though: As the curtain rises on our story, Lily Samson is about as discontent with her family as a teenage girl can be. Her mom is a workaholic, leaving her to take care of the house and cook; her grandpa threatened her brother with an ax; her grandmother has an imaginary friend; and her dad is absent. Oh, and just like the Addams Family, she lives in a scary looking house covered with weeds and vines. Yeah. She's pretty unhappy.
When Nan announces a big party for Pop's eightieth birthday, Lily sees her chance to make everything okay in her family—even if it's just for one day. From the moment Nan gives her the news on the phone, Lily is bent on getting her grandfather and brother to make up, even if she has to contend with both of their ironclad senses of pride in order to do so.
Eventually, life gets to be too much for Lily, and on one horrible afternoon after school, she finally freaks out. Her crush, Daniel Steadman, has left school, presumably because she's totally gross and smells like dishwater and vegetables. Lonnie and Pop are still not speaking to each other, plus Lonnie's engaged to a Chinese girl and Pop's racism will ruin her perfect day at the party. She also snagged her book bag on the door and broke a nail. Worst of all, she gets a glimpse of herself in the mirror and realizes she looks exactly like stubborn, racist Pop. Ugh.
It's too much for Lily, and she hits her breaking point. So she collapses on the floor and cries, feeling like a failure at life. On top of everything, the party she's put so much hope on will most definitely be a disaster.
As the lead-up to the party begins, all kinds of people start coming out of the woodwork. Lily's mom inadvertently pulls into Daniel's driveway when she asks Lily to mail some letters, and Daniel asks her out on a date. Mrs. Nightingale, the woman from the adult day care whom her mom invited to the party, turns out to be Sef, Nan's childhood friend she's continued to imagine is with her years later. And Lonnie's fiancée Clara's parents make their way out to the party to discover what's up with their daughter. Problems are resolving left and right.
Best of all, though, Pop chooses to overcome his racist tendencies and accept Clara as part of the family. It all seems totally unreal, but Lily couldn't be happier with how things turn out. She's going to get her perfect day after all.
Lonnie and Pop have made up, Nan and Sef are reunited, and Clara is welcomed into the family—Lily is on the verge of her wish for a perfect party coming true. But there's still one person missing from resolution with her family issues. The phone at Nan and Pop's house rings, and Lily immediately knows that it's her estranged father calling from America. Rather than push him away, she answers the phone and calls him Dad for the first time.