Study Guide

Perfect Themes

By Ellen Hopkins

  • Madness

    Perfect begins with the backstory of Conner Sykes, one of the three main characters in Impulse, as told by his twin sister, Cara. Conner's still in Aspen Springs, a psychiatric hospital, and Cara tells us about the day Conner shot himself. His parents' unrealistically high expectations played a role in his suicide attempt, and in Perfect, we see that these expectations are messing with Cara's head, too.

    In fact, all the narrators in Perfect—Cara, Kendra, Andre, and Sean—are going through the mental stress of trying to maintain appearances. It's just that they're not all in Aspen Springs… yet.

    Questions About Madness

    1. Is a person who attempts suicide always suffering from mental illness?
    2. Why is Cara able to deal with her parents' pressure without ending up in a mental hospital, but Conner isn't?
    3. Does Sean actually have schizophrenia, or will his symptoms go away once he stops taking steroids?
    4. Would Kendra have developed an eating disorder if she weren't a model?

    Chew on This

    Parental pressure can drive sensitive kids to take desperate actions, including suicide.

    Just because your twin has a mental illness doesn't mean you will, too.

  • Family

    A good subtitle for Perfect might be: So You Think YOUR Family Has Issues? Because, seriously—families in this book bring drama in epic proportions.

    Cara's parents expect nothing less than academic and social excellence, and learn nothing when one of their kids has a nervous breakdown. Andre's parents expect him to follow in their footsteps and make lots of money, even though his passion is dance. Kendra's mom expects a major pageant win followed by a modeling career, and her dad's more concerned with his much-younger fiancée than his daughters. Sean's parents are dead, and therefore can't expect anything, but his brother becomes a drug dealer and helps ruin Sean's life in their absence. Ugh.

    Questions About Family

    1. Were Conner's parents solely responsible for his suicide attempt?
    2. Would Sean have been less clingy with Cara if his parents were still alive?
    3. How does the absence of her dad in her life affect Jenna's behavior? How does it affect Kendra's?
    4. Can a stepparent ever take the place of a real parent?

    Chew on This

    With the exception of Dani, all the kids in Perfect who are missing a parent lack sexual boundaries. Kendra, Jenna, and Sean all use their bodies inappropriately to get what they want.

    All the parental pressure in Perfect is driven by denial. The narrators can't tell their parents who they really are, because their parents are so wrapped up in what they need to believe about their children. But if you truly believe your kid is who you think s/he is, you don't need to pressure them to be it.

  • Sex

    On the surface, Perfect might seem like a big, salacious, soap opera of a novel. However, the whole point of the story is that you have to look beneath the surface to find the truth. And the truth, for Cara, Andre, Sean, and Kendra, is that sex means more when it's with someone you love.

    Sean and Andre have hooked up with their share of girls, but things are different with Cara and Jenna—these are the girls for whom they actually feel something. Kendra remembers sex with Conner not because it was hot, but because it was loving. And as for Cara, she's pretty sure sex isn't all it's cracked up to be—until the first time she has it with a girl.

    Questions About Sex

    1. Why does Sean think that what he did to Cara isn't rape?
    2. Is there a double standard at play in Perfect? How do Sean and Andre's perceptions of sex differ from Cara, Kendra, and Jenna's?
    3. Can you ever live it down when someone texts pictures of you having sex to your classmates, like Sean does to Cara? If so, how?

    Chew on This

    Sleeping with casting directors won't actually help Kendra become a model. She's simply being exploited because she's naïve.

    The anger and irrationality induced by steroid abuse fuels Sean's impulsive rape. He might not have violated Cara's body if he weren't violating his own.

  • Race

    Hopkins is all about having her characters intersect, and in Perfect, one narrator starts dating another narrator's sister. But there are complications: Andre is black, and Kendra and Jenna are white; Andre's family is significantly higher on the socioeconomic ladder than Jenna's; and Andre's parents are married, while Jenna's are divorced.

    Of course, this doesn't stop Jenna's super racist dad from throwing a whole bunch of shade Andre's way. And even though Andre's dad is more educated than Jenna's, he gives Andre the side eye when he finds out his son's girlfriend is blonde, which of course means white. Not only do these two have to navigate raging hormones and other issues, then, they also have to handle the prejudice flowing freely from both families. Yay.

    Questions About Race

    1. Does Andre's mom feel any guilt for altering black women's features to make them look whiter?
    2. Why does Andre's dad mind that he dates white girls? Why does Jenna's dad mind that she dates Andre? Are there similarities? How about differences?
    3. Does Jenna really like Andre, or is she just using him to get back at her dad?

    Chew on This

    Jenna's dad is prejudiced, but you could argue that Andre's dad is, too.

    Shantell disapproves of Andre dating a white girl. On the one hand, who he dates is none of her business, but on the other, she could view it as a personal insult. Only through the universal language of dance does she grudgingly come to accept him.

  • Drugs and Alcohol

    Fasten your seatbelts, Shmoopers, because there's some fast living going on in Perfect. Cara's first LGBTQ spring break party is full of underage drinking, and her date, Dani, lost her mother to drugs. Kendra's after Sean for steroids because she's heard they'll help her lose weight, plus she's discovered the leftover Percocet in the medicine cabinet. Sean has himself a steroid problem, which leads to a Viagra prescription, and Jenna, even though she's younger than the narrators, can drink them all under the table.

    A recurring theme in Hopkins's work is the horrible consequences of drug and alcohol addiction, and Sean and Jenna are the ones who suffer those consequences the most in Perfect. You might consider Kendra as the ultimate addict, though, since she both abuses pills and seems pretty addicted to controlling her weight.

    Questions About Drugs and Alcohol

    1. Why do Sean, Jenna, and Kendra use drugs, but Cara and Andre don't? What's different about the pressure Cara and Andre face?
    2. Why don't Jenna's parents realize she's getting guys to buy her alcohol? Is she really that good at hiding it?
    3. Will the guy behind Sean's eyes go away when he stops using steroids?

    Chew on This

    Kendra suffers from anorexia, which is its own form of addiction. Her eating disorder is just as serious as her sister's drug use, but her parents choose not to address it because her thinness serves a purpose—they stand to make money from her modeling career.

    Even though she knows there might be drugs at the spring break party, Cara chooses to go anyway. She's suffered from Sean's drug use, but she's surprisingly trusting of Dani's ability to handle substances. Love can seriously cloud your judgment.

  • Strength and Skill

    There's nothing wrong with being good at stuff—after all, that's what college scholarships are made of. In Perfect, Sean's a killer baseball player, Kendra's a pageant queen, Cara's a smarty-pants with good grades, and Andre's poised for national fame on one of those So You Think You Can Dance shows. But the muscles Sean builds in the gym aren't big enough, so he tries steroids, and the nose Kendra was born with isn't runway-ready, so she signs up for plastic surgery. When the people who push you can never be satisfied, being good can go very, very bad.

    Questions About Strength and Skill

    1. Is getting a scholarship the reason Sean's so invested in baseball, or is there something deeper going on? How else does winning serve him?
    2. Does Kendra really want to be a model and pageant queen, or is she just doing it for her mom?
    3. How does Kendra's intense drive contribute to Jenna's lack thereof?

    Chew on This

    Cara's a perfectionist, but she's not as invested in a specific goal as the other narrators. What she really wants is to genuinely know herself.

    Kendra's eating disorder gives her something else to focus on besides what everyone else expects of her. Eating disorders aren't a healthy way of distracting yourself, but they are a distraction. Like other forms of self-injury, they're a way of dulling your feelings.

  • Appearances

    You know how sometimes you're having a bad day, and you log into whatever social media time-waster you're using as a procrastination tool, and it seems like everyone else's life is way better than yours? Yeah, that's a lie. Take the Sykes family, for example: On the outside, they look rich and beautiful and happy, but behind the scenes, they're replacing the carpet to get rid of the bloodstains from Conner's suicide attempt. Perfect is all about how deceiving looks can be, and how easy it is to lose your real self beneath the façade.

    Questions About Appearances

    1. Do you think most teenagers pretend to be someone other than who they are? Can you be popular if you're authentic?
    2. Does Conner's mom really think he'll be happier if he does what she expects, or is she simply unwilling to nurture—or even acknowledge—his true self?
    3. Will coming out as gay help Cara become more self-actualized in other ways? How else does she need to get to know herself?

    Chew on This

    The parents in Perfect don't model authenticity for their kids. It's hard to know who you are when the adults in your life don't know who they are.

    There's a lot of mention of clothing in Perfect. Andre's mom, for example, wants him to be "a fashion trendsetter." Our clothes are one of the main ways we project the image of who we want to be. To quote RuPaul, "You're born naked and the rest is drag."

  • Sexuality and Sexual Identity

    Pop quiz: You have a pretty, popular girl who's a cheerleader, and a fashion-trendsetter guy who's enrolled secret dance classes. Which one's gay? Surprise! It's the former.

    Despite the whispers of Jenna's friends in Perfect, Andre's actually hetero. However, Cara Sykes, girlfriend of the star (male) baseball player, is getting busy with another girl on the side. She's struggling big time with labeling herself as a lesbian, though, because she's already swimming in a sea of other labels that don't fit. It's only when Sean forces the truth with photographic revenge that Cara is forced to publicly come to terms with her sexuality. It's not an ideal way to come out, though it certainly expedites the process.

    Questions About Sexuality and Sexual Identity

    1. Do you think Cara has any idea she's gay before she meets Dani? Does she know she's attracted to girls, or does she just know she's not attracted to Sean?
    2. Why do Dani's friends say Cara isn't "lesbian enough"? Why do they doubt her sexuality?
    3. How is Cara able to survive Sean distributing her sex pictures? What helps her keep her sanity and self-respect?

    Chew on This

    Dani is confident enough in herself to stand up to her friends when they make snide comments about Cara. She proves to Cara that it's possible to be authentic and proud.

    Conner is the one person who's ever shown Kendra love and respect. Still, she doesn't trust him enough to ask who else he's slept with, instead putting her own physical and mental health at risk to keep his approval.