From the first page of Perfect, you know you're going to be reading about people with serious issues. Cara asks, "[…] when/did creating a flawless façade/become a more vital goal/than learning to love the person/who/lives inside your skin?" (1.4-5)—and then she tells us the story of her twin brother's suicide attempt. Welcome to the not-so-perfect world of Perfect, Shmoopers.
Kendra says, "The mirror was my best/friend. Until it started telling/me I wasn't really pretty/enough" (2.4), and details her plans to fix her imperfections with plastic surgery. By the time you get to the third chapter and Sean starts talking, it's clear that something bad is going to happen, that things are going to get worse before they get better—if they get better.
All four narrators struggle with anger, frustration, and dissatisfaction, and it comes through in their voices. Perfect is a book you might be tempted to read with your hands over your face, peeking out from behind your fingers, wondering how these characters are going to destroy themselves next.
Perfect is published by Margaret K. McElderry Books, the young adult imprint of Simon and Schuster. (An imprint is a specialized division within a larger publishing company.) All the narrators are teenagers, and their stories center around high school life. Hopkins is the undisputed champion of contemporary teen problem novels, and in Perfect, the biggest problem the narrators have is their parents. Sound familiar? We thought it might.
Speaking of problems with parents, they can really wreck your sense of self. All the narrators in Perfect are struggling to define who they are outside the confines of their families. Cara, Kendra, and Andre are under enormous pressure to keep up the perfect façade their parents want to project—well, except for Kendra's dad, who shows up drunk at her choir recital and causes a whole different kind of family drama.
As for Sean, he may not have parents, but he's definitely trying to live up to familial expectations. His Uncle Jeff was an athlete, and Sean's trying to be the best baseball player in the history of ever. Uncle Jeff knows baseball scouts, and he pulls some strings to advance Sean's career. In a way it's a nice thing to do, but in a way it's another kind of pressure. Then there's his brother Chad, a drug dealer who gets him hooked on steroids. All the narrators dream of becoming their own people; they're just not quite sure how to do it.
Hopkins's titles are always one word, and this one's easy: Perfect is a book about being perfect. The big question here is who defines perfection. As Cara says on the first page, "Only you should decide for you what is perfect" (1.5-6). And on the last page, she describes the letter her parents wrote to Conner as being "folded into […] a perfect paper airplane" (57.16-17). Being pushed toward perfection is something you either find freedom from or collapse under the weight of, and each main character in this book navigates this struggle in their own way.
The last page of Perfect contains only the words, "a perfect paper airplane" (57.17). Tony and Vanessa give the airplane to Cara at Conner's funeral. They were with Conner on the Aspen Springs wilderness retreat, and at the end of the retreat, each kid got a letter from his or her parents. Conner's parents wrote to him about staying on track with his coursework so he could go to college on time.
What, you were looking for something like "we care about your mental health"? Surely you jest. That's just not how the Sykes parents roll.
The letter was the last straw in the parental-pressure saga for Conner, who folded the letter into an airplane and let it fly before jumping off a cliff. He may have fallen under his parents' unyielding expectations, but the book ends with what might be understood as a reminder to make your own perfect and fly.
Ellen Hopkins lives in Nevada, so it's no surprise she'd set a novel there. After all, write what you know, right? In Kendra's first chapter, she and her mom drive from Reno to Elko, which is across the state (Reno's on the west, across the border from Northern California, and Elko's on the East, close to Utah). Andre goes to Las Vegas for his audition, which is a seven-hour drive south. The three cities form kind of a lopsided, upside-down triangle, if you're into spatial relations.
Mount Rose, where the characters go skiing (and where Cara meets Dani) is about a forty-five minute drive southwest, on Lake Tahoe. Should you want to schedule a Perfect tour of Nevada, you might want to stop at Galena High School, which really exists, and they really are called the Grizzlies. (Andre's school, Zephyr Academy, isn't real.)
Oh, and the Ultimate Rush Thrill Park at the Grand Sierra Resort, where Andre and Jenna go on one of their first dates, also exists, but it's now known as Grand Adventure Land. Enjoy the bungee jumping…
That this book is set in the world in which we live is important. This isn't fantasy, and these problems aren't made up: Teens really do struggle with much of what our four narrators navigate, and by keeping the setting real, their problems come across as real, too.
First, let's get the slightly daunting aspects of Perfect out of the way: It's over six hundred pages long, and it's written in verse. When you first see it on the bookshelf, looking like a doorstop and dwarfing all the other books in the YA section, you might be tempted to pass it by. But don't, because we promise you'll fly through it.
See, this isn't Shakespeare-type poetry; you won't be wondering what the author means with a bunch of wherefores and forsooths. Nope, the narrators' voices are contemporary and accessible, complete with references to Katy Perry and Facebook, and a whole lot of drama (like, a lot of drama) to pull you in. Don't be surprised if you fly through a hundred pages without even realizing it.
Go into the young adult lit section of your local bookstore and pick up an Ellen Hopkins book. You probably wouldn't even have to see her name on the cover to know she wrote it. The first giveaway, of course, is the fact that the book is five hundred million pages long (give or take a few million); the second is that she always writes in verse. As she says in her Amazon.com bio, "writing novels in verse fulfills two needs: writing poetry and writing fiction." Verse it is, then.
Hopkins often experiments with form—for example, in her second novel, Glass, when narrator Kristina talks about her home, the arrangement of the words makes a picture of a house. In Perfect, she doesn't use words to create pictures, but the first page of each chapter forms two poems in two columns. All the words make up a single poem, but the shorter fragments in one column make up a separate one.
For example, on the first page of Cara's first section, the column on the left says, "How/why/where/when/who/what" (1.1-6), and on the first page of Kendra's first section, the right column reads, "Pretty/isn't/good/enough" (2.1-4). Read the whole page, and then read the column with fewer words to find the hidden poem. You'll get double the meaning.
The Sykes family's house is obsessively clean, thanks to their housekeeper, Gwen. As Cara says, "Give my room a cursory/inspection, you'd think I have OCD" (1.7). They keep up appearances inside their home, just as they do on the outside. After all, if you can afford a professional housekeeper, you can keep everything looking perfect.
How perfect? They have white carpet, people. White. Do you know how hard it is to keep white carpet looking good? You can't walk across it wearing shoes. You can't have pets. You can't eat in the same room, lest you spill something. White carpet basically screams, "Look at us! We're perfectly clean all the time! We barely even have feet!"
However, when the book opens, workers have come to the Sykes house to lay new mint-green carpet, because the white stuff was ruined with the worst kind of stain: Conner's blood. Cara tells us, "Some consider suicide/an act of honor. I seriously don't agree./But even if it were, you'd have to/actually die. All Conner did was stain Mom's new white Berber/carpet. They're replacing it now" (1.16). Way to ruin the perfect façade, Conner.
Instead of sitting beside her suicidal son in the psychiatric hospital, holding his hand, and asking him how she could be a better parent, Cara's mom is yelling at the carpet guys for not doing things perfectly enough. Cara feels sorry for them, but she enjoys the reprieve:
I sit on the top stair, unseen.
Invisible. Silent. I might as well
not even be here at all. And
that's all right. At least I don't
have to worry that she will focus
her anger on me. (4.17-19)
Our first glimpse of Cara's mom shows us an uptight woman for whom nothing can ever be good enough, including her children. And the thing about carpets, is that even if you have to take your shoes off to keep them clean, you still walk all over them. Which is pretty much what the Sykes parents do to their kids, refusing to acknowledge their quirks and imperfections and insisting they follow the path set out for them. Just like keeping the carpet clean, though, this perfection is impossible, which Cara and Conner both make quite clear in their own time.
If you want a paper airplane to glide rather than nose-dive, it has to be symmetrical. In other words, in order to keep it balanced, the folds have to be perfect.
The last four words of Perfect are "[…] a perfect paper airplane" (57.17). We don't see the airplane or know of its existence until the last page. When Tony hands it to Cara at Conner's funeral, he says, "Vanessa and I found this, out in/the desert. I think it drove him over" (57.16). Wait, wait, wait… Say what?
It's not just any paper airplane, Shmoopers—it's the last letter Conner received from his mother. Here's an excerpt:
All you have to do is maintain
your GPA and, of course, score
well on your entrance exams.
Not really much more to say
except to let you know Cara
has already been accepted
at Stanford. You can do as well.
After all, you're her twin. Mom. (44.44-45)
Not only does she compare a suicidal kid to his sister, she doesn't even include a cursory love you or anything like that before the she signs off. It's no surprise that Conner, who has recently stopped taking his meds, is too unstable and exhausted to keep trying to live up to her standards. He's done been sick of his parents' push for perfection, and the insensitivity of this note is the last straw—he's done trying.
Before he jumps, though, Conner sends one final, perfect object over the cliff. It's the paper airplane, a beacon to go before him, something that can fly, even as he falls.
There are four narrators in Perfect, but they all speak in the first person, one at a time. To differentiate, Hopkins begins each section with the narrator's name, and she uses a different font for each. They speak in order: Cara, Kendra, Sean, Andre, repeat. Cara begins the book and gets one extra section at the end to close it.
There are a ton of minor characters in Perfect, but we learn about all of them through the four narrators. When a minor character (or one of the other narrators) speaks, the narrator relays it in italics. For example, when Andre goes to visit Jenna in the hospital and her dad walks in with Kendra, here's how Andre relays it: "His face goes all red, and hatred feeds/his ugly glare. You./This is because of you, you goddamn –/No! Kendra stops him cold. This is not/because of him, Dad./It's because of you!"(48.59-60). The italics, then, are Kendra and her dad speaking.
It's an unusual way of writing dialogue, but then, verse is an unusual way of writing a novel.
We promise you'll be able to keep it all straight—plus, you'll get to know each narrator pretty well in turn.
Conner's in Aspen Springs, a psychiatric hospital, but nobody at school knows it. Cara's parents have warned her not to tell—after all, it might ruin their reputation. The official story is that he's in a regular hospital for an extended ailment, but when Kendra's mom goes to the Galena High guidance counselor's office for a we-need-to-talk-about-Jenna meeting, she accidentally overhears the truth. She tells Kendra, Kendra asks Cara if it's true, Cara asks who told, Kendra says it doesn't matter, and the next thing you know, it's all over school.
You know how this works.
Who's not self-destructing in Perfect? Sure, Cara and Andre are keeping it together, but they're definitely not following their dreams. Sean and Kendra, on the other hand, are on a bullet train to the funeral home and/or jail. Sean starts doing steroids, Kendra's eating disorder progresses, plus there's parental conflict and secrecy galore, with Cara hiding her sexual identity, Andre hiding his dance identity, Kendra hiding what she has to do to get modeling jobs, and Sean hiding the fact that he's on drugs.
Everybody's being pressured to get into a good school in the Bay Area (specifically, Stanford), except for Kendra, who's being pressured to work the runway.
Everything comes to a head when Jenna gets raped, beaten, and stabbed, and Conner dies by suicide. Kendra has a supremely bad day when she gets the call about Jenna, goes to the hospital to be with her, and gets the call about Conner while sitting by Jenna's bed. Crises don't come much bigger than that. Cara's dad breaks down, but her mom remains calm—after all, somebody has to make the funeral arrangements and order the hors d'oeuvres.
All the narrators come together for the first time at Conner's funeral. Sean goes with Shantell, Cara goes with Dani, Sean goes with Aubree, and Kendra goes with her mom. All of them have epiphanies except Kendra, who arrives with an eating disorder and leaves with one. Sean realizes he needs to be happy on his own instead of needing Cara (or Aubree, or some other girl), Andre realizes he has to come out to the world as a dancer, and Cara realizes she has to come out to the world as gay. Cara takes the most drastic and obvious step of them all, though, and kisses Dani in front of everyone.
Tony and Vanessa, the other two narrators of Impulse, deliver a eulogy at Conner's funeral. They're the only ones who really knew him, who knew how scared he was and how pressured he felt. They give Cara one last reminder of Conner's brief time on the planet: the letter he received from her parents on the wilderness retreat. She's seen it before, of course, but Conner has transformed it into a paper airplane and tossed it off the cliff before tossing himself.