Narrated by Aya Cash, Heather Lind, Aaron Tveit & Tristan Wilds
Length: 8 hours 9 minutes
Cara. Kendra. Shawn. Andre. All high school seniors, and all trying to attain perfection of different kinds. For Cara, a young girl who is dealing with her twin brother’s attempted suicide, the pressure of fitting into her parents’ exacting mold is stifling and crippling. Though she wants to live up to the expectations placed upon her, a new relationship may change the way that everyone thinks of her forever. Kendra vows that one day she will be a model and goes to incredible lengths to attain the perfect look, including surgery and an eating disorder, and soon her struggle to be prefect will become a battle that none can ignore. Shawn longs to play college ball, but when he starts using steroids and begins to lose himself to rage and jealousy, he falls further and further away from the perfect athlete that he’s trying to become. Andre is hiding the fact that he would rather become a dancer than an investment banker from his parents, who expect him to be the best. As he navigates a personal life full of drama and attempts to keep his dreams a secret from everyone, he grows more and more unhappy. As these four teenagers move through their days putting on the false facade of perfection, underneath they are all falling apart; some in dangerous ways and some in quiet ways. But when tragedy forces them to look at themselves in a new light, will it be enough to shake them from their mindless pursuit of perfection? In this novel of heartbreaking clarity and emotional resonance, Ellen Hopkins takes her readers on a journey through the lives of four people who are bound by their desires to become something that they can never be: Perfect.
Though this is my first novel in verse, I think the fact that I listened to it on audio had much to do with my acceptance and even love of this form of writing. I had expected a novel in verse to be somewhat rigid and stylistically scattered, but I found that Hopkins does her best to make the book feel fluid and cohesive and it read just like a regular novel would have. The audio production was incredible as well, and I thought that the whole compliment of narrator voices were well suited to the story as well as being able to sustain dramatic vocal tension without overdoing it. I was really pleased that I chose to listen to this one instead of reading it because I feel that there was a lot of gravity that I would have missed by experiencing this one in print.
Hopkins seems to understand the teenage mind to an incredible degree. She gets the frustration, anger and resiliency that being a teenager is all about. Each of her four characters are on the cusp of a new things, and while some are breaking down, some are hiding secrets that will change the landscape of their lives. What I liked about these characters was that they themselves and the attitudes they conveyed were so varied. Some were cynical, some were depressed and some were hopeful and eager. I liked that Hopkins created her characters with subtlety and nuance and that there was a great amount of emotion packed into the seemingly short exposés of their lives. These were teenagers dealing with major issues, and the one thing that I kept wondering was, where are the parents in all this? In most cases, they were too self absorbed to be of any help to their children and they failed to see what the pressure they were exerting was doing to their kids.
There are several issues addressed in this book. Hopkins tackles drug use, eating disorders, mental illness, rape, gender conflicts and body shame. What sets this book apart is that she tackles each from a different perspective and doesn’t get moralistic and preachy about them. She allows each character to explore the boundaries they are caught in and gently leads them to places of understanding. This isn’t to say that all the stories end happily, because, as in life, not everything is black and white. These are big problems that for some can’t be fixed and for others the struggle in managing their crisis becomes the crux of their existence. It’s all very realistic and it made me think about teenagers in a way that I might not have seen them before. They deal with sadness and longing just like adults but are less able to sort out their feelings and deal productively with them without the support of family and friends. Sometimes they have no support at all.
This tale was frank and unapologetic. In seeking to represent the teenagers of her tale, Hopkins gets the verisimilitude just right. A few times I was shocked, but as I listened, I realized that there was great candor to the writing that made everything click for me as a reader and evoked a deep compassion for these struggling kids. Often the characters were so good at hiding what was bothering them that they seemed just like their peers, and in a touch that I relished, Hopkins even gets into the heads and hearts of some of the secondary characters and exposes their plights as well. At times unsettling, at times very sad, this novel sought to expose the mystery behind the almost universal drive towards perfection and the high price associated with that drive. The writing was filled with fire and passion of a kind that I hadn’t experienced in a long time, and though it was ambitious to tackle essentially four stories at once, the result was a multi-layered mosaic of pain and beauty seamlessly overlapping throughout the narrative.
This is a book that should not only be read by older teens but by adults as well. In Hopkins’ examination of the teenage subculture, there are messages here for everyone. It was honest without being vulgar and told a multi-threaded story of the dangers that can come to pass when the ideal is not only acceptable, but critically sought. A one of a kind book that will haunt and impress in equal degree. Recommended.
Ellen Hopkins will be one of the featured guests at the UCF Book Festival on March 31st 2012. I’m looking forward to getting the chance to speak with her about the book and about what she’s planning for the future. For more information about the event, click here.
This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.