From Jo March to Katniss Everdeen, plucky, individualistic young women going through some pretty weird social situations to learn lessons about their identities is a staple of young adult literature. Lily may not be a writer in training or engaged in a sacrificial battle to the death, but her volatile family situation and desire to be an average girl create a lot of insecurity and angst that she has to overcome.
The opening of One Whole and Perfect Day finds Lily walking home from school, looking in the windows of the houses she passes. Everywhere she looks, she sees what she calls "proper families" (1.1)—moms, dads, two and a half kids, and maybe a dog or a cat and a white picket fence. By this standard, her family is the definition of "improper." Hers features an absent father, a grandma who sees imaginary people, and a grandpa who's been known to bring an ax to feuds with her older brother about his future.
One thing that drives Lily throughout the novel is her desire to experience what it's like to be an ordinary teenage girl instead of the "sensible one in the family" (2.1). This desire for normalcy eventually is expressed through her fervent desire for Nan's party to be "the kind of party proper families had: a perfect, happy day" (20.4). Lily wants a lot of things in this book—a boyfriend, to be more conventionally beautiful, and to not have to come home and worry about making dinner or cleaning the house.
But more than anything, she wants just one day when all her family's problems can vanish.
At an age when most teenage girls are complaining about having to keep their rooms clean, Lily has a whole house to take care of. And this isn't a new trend, either. Lily's family has come to depend on her because of her "sensible" nature. We're told:
By age seven she was getting her big brother up for school, since he never seemed to her Mum's pleadings. These days, she cooked dinner every second night, made out the shopping list for Saturday, and remembered when the car had to be serviced and the bills paid. (2.1)
Whoa. That's a ton of responsibility for a sixteen-year-old, but it seems like Lily does all of this voluntarily and without complaining… at least not out loud. She longs to be like the other girls at her school, but when her mother asks if she's planned out dinner for the next day after discovering her during her breakdown later in the book, she's quick to reply, "I'm just getting around to it" (19.48). She doesn't ask her mom for help or tell her how badly she needs a break or yearns for normalcy. Nope, Lily grins and bears it.
This raises an interesting question: Do Lonnie and their mother take advantage of Lily? Could Lily stand to be a little more assertive? The answers are probably yes and yes, at least a little bit, for both questions. Either way, though, Lily knows that her mother needs her and our girl is willing to make some serious sacrifices on her behalf.
There's one little problem with being the primary caregiver in her family, though: It's totally ruining Lily's social life. Her friends like to giggle about boys and take personality quizzes in a magazine called Bestie, but Lily doesn't even feel like she understands any of that stuff—to her, "The 'befores' in the makeover section looked better to her than the 'afters'" (19.13). Basically, in a stage of life where everyone struggles with fitting in, Lily has more issues than most.
This, however, doesn't keep her from experiencing one of the quintessential aspects of the Teenage Girl Experience: crushing on a dude. She has it really bad for Daniel Steadman, the hottest guy in the junior class, not to mention the lead in the school production of Hamlet.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given how mature Lily is on the home front, part of her finds these feelings "embarrassing" (10.31) and juvenile. But despite her reservations, love is something that Lily desperately wants, whether she's comfortable admitting it or not. Check out what happens when she finally meets Clara, Lonnie's girlfriend:
A pang of envy and distress—would anyone, forget about Daniel Steadman, anyone ever gaze at her the way Lonnie was gazing at Clara? Of course they wouldn't. (33.58)
Of course, the beautiful thing about the end of this book is that in spite of her short, stocky build, her lack of interest in makeup and fashion, her domestic responsibilities, and all the things she believes are stacked against her, Lily still gets exactly what she wants: Daniel. Yay.
Importantly, she doesn't even have to perform or pretend, either—he falls in love with her voice as she prompts at play rehearsal, and thinks she's "beautiful" (40.74). So while she might struggle with feeling juvenile for having a crush, what she winds up with is having it reciprocated for all the right reasons. Which, if you think about it, is pretty mature.
Don't break out the champagne to toast Lily's virtuosity just yet, though. While she might be a loving, supportive daughter, she has some not-so-nice qualities as well. Mainly, she's kind of a control freak—which makes sense given how out of control her world is. She attempts to restore order by micromanaging not only her life, but the lives of those around her.
Marigold sums up Lily's faults pretty clearly when she comes home to find Lily having her emotional breakdown: "But oh, she was bossy! So bossy and bullying, so certain she was right" (29.30). And it's true. Lily orders Marigold not to bring home any more elderly people from the day care because "it's not professional" (3.37), demands that Lonnie go over to apologize to Pop because "I want that party" (30.7), and even tries to manipulate Pop's potentially racist feelings toward Clara by prank calling him and saying she's from the fictional Association for Racial Harmony.
Hey, Lily? Deep breaths, girl—you might want to chill out just a little bit.
So here's another pretty awesome thing about the way the story ends: Not only does Lily get the perfect family day she longs for, but it happens independently of anything she tries to arrange. This is largely because she has a serious tendency to underestimate the people around her. She reflects on this as she considers Pop and Nan's experiences with the people who arrive in their home:
Pop wasn't the awful old racist she'd imagined him to be, it seemed.
And Nan wasn't a batty old lady with an imaginary companion because Sef was real. (40.6-7)
Making the ending even happier, then, is the fact that it seems like Lily realizes a little bit that she's misjudged the people around her. So maybe—just maybe—going forward she'll lighten up a bit and put some faith in her family. It can only help her prolong the happiness she feels as the book closes.