Study Guide

One Whole and Perfect Day Themes

By Judith Clarke

  • Family

    Let's face it: No one's family is perfect. And in One Whole and Perfect Day Lily Samson's family is no exception; so while she might think they're far from normal, then again, what exactly is normal, anyway? Fortunately, Lily learns by the end of the book, with a little help from her family and some other unlikely sources, that a family's quirkiness is what makes it special. Your family may be weird, but it may also have a lot of things to be proud of, provided you're willing to pull back the curtain and realize that quirky is actually the norm. Which Lily totally does.

    Questions About Family

    1. How does Lily's selfishness contribute to the way she views her family?
    2. How do the members of the Samson and Lee families respond to conflict? How are they similar or different?
    3. How has each character been shaped by their parents? How have these relationships influenced their own parenting?
    4. Is every family dysfunctional? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Lily's negative feelings about her family are largely created by her inability to see things from other people's points of view.

    The book's parent and grandparent characters all struggle to relearn lessons from their own youth in order to better connect with their children and grandchildren.

  • Pride

    Like it or not, everyone struggles with pride. Not surprisingly, it runs rampant in Lily's story in One Whole and Perfect Day, from her bossy nature to Stan's refusal to apologize to Lonnie to Clara's belief that she knows how to solve her mom's marital problems. Pride prevents them from showing kindness and forgiveness to each other, letting people make their own decisions, and accepting family members as they are. These characters may think they're doing just fine on their own, but their belief that they know best actually makes a huge mess of things. Oops.

    Questions About Pride

    1. What do these characters have to be so prideful about? Why do they consider their interests so important?
    2. Think about the major family conflicts in the story—Lonnie and Pop, Clara and her father, and Lily and her mother. Who is responsible in each of these situations? If they both bear responsibility, what has each done to contribute to the situation?
    3. How does each generation respond to pride differently?
    4. Who is the most prideful character in the book? Whose pride creates the biggest mess?

    Chew on This

    Stan's anger toward Lonnie is largely due to the generational differences between them and the idea that kids Lonnie's age have less work ethic and responsibility.

    Pride doesn't care how old someone is, and this book is as much about the younger characters dealing with pride as it is the older characters.

  • Identity

    Having an identity crisis may be a day-to-day struggle for most teenage girls, but when you're a high school student, the family chef, and the chief organizer of your household all rolled into one like our friend Lily, things get a little more complicated.

    She's definitely not the only one struggling with discovering who she is, though—One Whole and Perfect Day is largely about the characters, both young and old, discovering or reframing their identities within their families and communities. Along the way, they learn a lot about social roles, love, letting go of children, and a lot of other stuff that causes serious shifts in their self-conceptions.

    Questions About Identity

    1. How does the concept of family relate to the identity issues the characters struggle with?
    2. What does the Daniel Steadman Affair teach Lily about individualism and fitting in?
    3. Based on the brief glimpses we get into Daniel's head, how are he and Lily similar?
    4. Which character in One Whole and Perfect Day can you most relate to? Why?

    Chew on This

    The fact that Lily is a more advanced learner than Lonnie enables others to heavily rely on her, which in turn shapes a large part of her identity for her.

    Many of the younger characters' actions are motivated by their desire to not end up like one of their family members.

  • Race

    Nothing stands in the way of a good time like racism, right? And in One Whole and Perfect Day, Pop's propensity for insensitive and inaccurate behavior based on other people's race stands to be a major barrier to the family reunion Lily so desperately wants. Whereas some books take long hard looks at racism in action, though, this book focuses instead on redemption. Pop may be old, and he may have terrible prejudices, but he ultimately comes to see the error in his ways, showing that even when it comes to racism, you can teach an old dog new tricks. Phew.

    Questions About Race

    1. One of the most dramatic moments in the book is our realization that Clara's family is Chinese. Why do you think Clarke doesn't give us this crucial bit of information when we first meet Clara?
    2. How do the characters' views of race vary according their ages?
    3. Do you think Pop's reaction to the changes in his old neighborhood have more to do with the cultural differences or the simple fact that his home is different?
    4. Why do Rose and Pop end up being such good friends? What overcomes the racial differences between them?

    Chew on This

    Race in the novel serves to magnify the generational differences between Lily and Stan.

    Stan's alleged racism is more a product of the time he was raised in than his actual way of looking at things.

  • Women and Femininity

    It's not that guys aren't important in One Whole and Perfect Day, but when it comes to gender roles here, it's all about the ladies. Throughout the story, women attempt to solidify their roles in careers, the home, and relationships, questioning what femininity looks like in their particular lives. Some, like Rose, are maybe a little too timid in standing up to tell the men in their lives what's what, while others, like Nan, clearly wear the proverbial pants in their households.

    Most of all, though, Lily's storyline looks at how teenagers deal with growing into young women, and how this affects the way they see each other and themselves.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. There are a lot of wives and moms in this book. How are their marriages and families similar or different?
    2. How does Rose's relationship with Clara compare to Marigold's relationship with Lily?
    3. What aspects of being a female teenager does Lily struggle with? Why?
    4. Do you think Rose does the right thing by responding to Charlie's orders and putting up with his bossy temperament? Or is Clara right when she suggests Rose leave? How do you think their marriage will change as a result of the story's events?

    Chew on This

    Having adult responsibilities and being unconventionally beautiful prevent Lily from fully entering the world of teenage girls.

    Rose's patience with Charlie stems from the value she places on family as a result of her parents' deaths.

  • Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    Getting a boyfriend, becoming the next Emeril, and staging a perfect family party might be vastly different goals, but the thing that unites all the young characters of One Whole and Perfect Day is their idealism. Lily, Lonnie, Clara, and Jessaline all desire to change their lives for the better by doing things and being with the people they love.

    It isn't just about the young folks, though—May, Marigold, and Rose have hopes and plans for their families and children, dreaming that they'll set aside the conflicts that keep them from moving forward. They all have to make concessions and take risks to get what they want, but these characters ultimately learn that the happiness of others, as well as themselves, is totally worth doing so for.

    Questions About Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    1. How do the hopes and dreams of the book's younger characters compare to their parents' hopes for their lives? Is anyone in sync? Who? And how do you know?
    2. Does Lily think having a perfect day will be a permanent solution to her family's problems? Or does she just want the experience of feeling normal, even if it can't last?
    3. What does each character want? How do their desires change as the story unfolds?
    4. What's the deal with Lucy? Why is this character even in the book? What do you think her relationship with the Samsons means for her future?

    Chew on This

    The adult characters' objections to their children's goals come from their own lost opportunities and regrets.

    Without meeting Clara, Lonnie probably wouldn't have gotten himself together.

  • Memory and the Past

    You know the feeling: You're enjoying your day and everything seems hunky-dory… until the past rises up in your mind and replaces your contentment with anger and sadness. That's how pretty much all the characters in One Whole and Perfect Day feel—haunted by damaged relationships, lost relatives, and regrets. Not only that, but they all have to learn to move beyond the past in order to create the futures they want. After all, no matter how deep their wounds are, revisiting their memories does little for solving the problems they've been dealt.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. What specific memories haunt each character the most? How do these memories affect the way they conduct their lives in the present?
    2. Why does Stan return to the neighborhood he grew up in? What is he hoping to find? What does he find instead?
    3. How has the absence of their father wounded both Lily and Lonnie? How are these wounds similar or different?
    4. How have the characters been encouraged or hurt by parental relationships?

    Chew on This

    While she may never have met him, Lily has suffered from her lack of a father just as much as Lonnie has.

    The adult characters' decisions to let go of their pasts ultimately changes the directions their children are headed.

  • Old Age

    One Whole and Perfect Day might primarily be a young adult novel, but the portrayal of elderly characters trying to cope with the changes in their children and grandchildren makes its contribution to the genre pretty rare. Through May, Stan, and even Sef (both real and imaginary), we get to see how the Samson family's difficulties have affected them, as well as the real stories behind issues like May's alleged battiness and Stan's anger problem.

    And importantly, the book's view of familial conflict from the perspective of both the young and the old is what makes it just as much the story of a family as it is the story of Lily.

    Questions About Old Age

    1. How have May and Stan responded to old age differently? How about similarly?
    2. What are some of the reasons why Stan thinks the good old days were better than the present?
    3. Why is May's friendship with Sef so important to the story?
    4. How does Lily perceive the elderly? How do the elderly characters perceive the younger characters?

    Chew on This

    While Stan often criticizes Lily's and Lonnie's beliefs and lifestyles, he's more like them than he's willing to admit.

    Sef's reemergence is a majorly important part of Lily's realization about the true character of her family members.

  • Coming of Age

    What's my major going to be? Does he like me or not? Will Dad ever quit being a jerk? If One Whole and Perfect Day were written in the first person, there's a good chance it might sound something like this. The younger characters' issues largely stem from the insecurities, questions, and uncertainties that come from being in high school and college. But hey—in the confusing limbo stage between childhood and adulthood, life tends to get a little messy. The good news is that in the end, they're all pretty happy with where they end up. Yay.

    Questions About Coming of Age

    1. Why are the perspectives of Lonnie's, Lily's, and Clara's parents important to developing their characters as young people coming of age?
    2. What array of feelings Lily does experience toward Daniel throughout the book?
    3. How do the younger characters' difficulties help them to come of age?
    4. What does finding a direction for your life mean to each of the younger characters?

    Chew on This

    Lily doesn't really find love to be insensible—she's actually afraid of the rejection that might come from taking the risk.

    Just as Rose helps Stan move past his difficulties in old age, Clara's the primary agent in helping Lonnie to come of age.

  • Versions of Reality

    We've all done it: You see a person looking at you as you walk by and immediately think they don't like you; you don't get a text back from a friend and assume he's mad about something; you imagine thoughts into someone else's head that just aren't real. As a novel with twelve different perspectives, One Whole and Perfect Day is all about what happens when versions of reality collide. A key part of this is Clarke's use of dramatic irony, which occurs when we as readers know something the characters don't. But let's check out a few examples of this in action.

    Questions About Versions of Reality

    1. How do each of the Samson family members (and Clara) respond to Lonnie's feud with Pop? How do their perspectives differ?
    2. Describe Lily's version of her reality. How is it different from what actually exists?
    3. How does seeing the story from each character's point of view change your opinion about the events?
    4. Is there any single thing that all the characters involved understand the same way? How does that influence your reading of the book?

    Chew on This

    While it's not perfect, Lily's life isn't nearly as bad as she thinks it is.

    Stan needs Rose in order to realize—and set into motion—some of the major changes in his life.