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'Perfect' by Ellen Hopkins

In the novel, teens struggle with the ideals of perfection foisted upon them.

September 30, 2011|By Susan Carpenter, Los Angeles Times

Drugs. Incest. Abuse. The list of teen troubles seems never ending. At least it provides fodder for numerous young adult authors who leverage such misfortunes into compelling narratives, providing solace and, perhaps, a path forward for real-world teen readers struggling with the same issues.

Bestselling author Ellen Hopkins has long mined this ever-expanding list. Her previous books have tackled rape and teen pregnancy, among other topics. In her latest, "Perfect," Hopkins turns her attention to a subject so slippery it's typically addressed only tangentially — perfectionism.

The relentless pursuit of perfection is as insidious as any other problem befalling America's youth, but it's challenging to address because it manifests in so many different forms of self-abuse. What results in a drug addiction for one person could be cutting for another. In "Perfect," Hopkins seeks perfectionism's root cause by following four high school seniors whose lives are a far cry from the book's title.

With each character's introduction, Hopkins assigns the single adjective that defines them. Stanford-bound Cara is "perfect" in every way, while aspiring model Kendra is "pretty." Sean is the "buff" baseball player. Andre, the "bomb," because he's so wealthy. Told from each character's point of view in alternating chapters, it's clear these adjectives aren't the ones they desire for themselves but have been assigned by outside forces, namely their parents.

Cara writes, "There is no possible way to satisfy our mother." Her parents have turned her home into a pressure cooker, demanding she excel not only in academics, but in sports and extracurriculars. They pay her little attention otherwise. Her dad is rarely home, most likely because her mom is such an unappeasable, demanding shrew.

Kendra's blond hair and blue eyes have been prized since she was a child, but the Nordic beauty still finds fault with herself. She plans to go under the knife for rhinoplasty, all the while endlessly dieting to dwindle her 5-foot, 10-inch frame from a size 4 to a runway-ready size 2. Her divorced and remarried mom turns a blind eye to Kendra's anorexia because she wants her daughter to be able to support herself and avoid what she has had to do — depend on a man.

Sean lives with his aunt and uncle because both of his parents died when he was a child. Hours of weight training, and steroid abuse, offer some distraction from the abandonment he feels but not enough to quell his anger. Andre, meanwhile, secretly yearns to be a dancer, despite his parents' insistence that he follow in his family's footsteps and pursue an investment banking career.

The connection between the characters isn't so much their interpersonal relationships but their avoidance of failure — the lengths to which they'll go to please people who won't be satisfied no matter what they do.

What happens when a life is defined by someone else's expectations is the question at the center of "Perfect." How these interwoven, dysfunctional ambitions collide and eventually resolve makes for compelling reading. Hopkins not only captures the heightened emotionality and rawness of their experiences, she distills it by writing in verse rather than prose.

Her stanzas, however, do not rhyme. They read together like a regular novel, making her use of verse more of a format choice that employs words as a layout device to underscore certain ideas. With powerfully spare language that is occasionally profane, Hopkins switches between character viewpoints on a turn of phrase. When Kendra falls off a bicycle to work off the calories from eating three Jolly Rancher candies, for example, she picks herself up and insists "I'm Okay." The following chapter, from Sean's point of view, begins, "Everything I've believed in, smashed into the mud. All I've worked toward, pulverized into dust. But I'm okay."

Hopkins is painfully adept at channeling perfectionist psychology — not only its incumbent fears and secrets, but the use of substances and behaviors to numb the pain of a false existence. It's an ambitious idea, powerfully executed.

susan.carpenter@latimes.com

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