Friday, April 3, 2015

Better Than Perfect by Melissa Kantor

Better Than Perfect is a story about a girl whose perfect life is not so perfect for her. It's about a girl beginning to discover just who she really is and what she might want out of life. And it's not the perfect life she has lined up for herself.


Juliet Newman's life has turned upside down with the separation of her parents. Her perfect family is no more. Her life plan was to ace the SAT and attend Harvard early action with her handsome boyfriend, Jason Robinson. But things in Juliet's life changed very quickly in June when her father announced he was leaving. 

Since that time, neither Juliet nor her mother have been doing well. Juliet scored poorly on her June SATs, taken the week after her father's big announcement. And her biggest support, Jason, is leaving for a holiday in France with his family. Jason's mother, Grace, asked Juliet if she wanted to travel with them, but Juliet cannot give up her coveted internship at Children United. Meanwhile her only sibling, her older brother, Oliver, who is staying at Yale for the summer, has gone camping for the week. And Juliet has no idea if her father intends on keeping the reservation for the house they usually rent in Maine for the summer.

At home Juliet's mother often sleeps late and drinks in the evenings. Her mother has always had lots of prescription drugs, for insomnia, for her back and even to calm her when she did presentations at charity functions. Now Juliet is concerned about all the prescription bottles on her mother's night table. On Bad Days Juliet's mother doesn't make it out of bed and Juliet finds herself taking on the role of mom. Good Days find Juliet's mom making plans to return to the workforce or planning to redecorate the house.

Sophia Taylor, Juliet's best friend, helps her study for the SATs and this leads Juliet to stay over at her friends home one night. When Juliet returns the next day, she finds her mother bloody and unconscious on the bathroom floor surrounded by pills. Juliet does not know whether her mother attempted suicide or if she accidentally overdosed.

At the hospital Juliet learns from her father that her mother has been abusing prescription drugs and mixing them with alcohol for some time. This revelation and seeing her mother in restraints make Juliet angry at her father and sad for her mother. Refusing her father's offer to return to his new home, Juliet drives to the Milltown Country Club where Sofia is working. However, in her frazzled state of mind, Juliet cuts off a van containing a family of musicians who are arriving for a gig at the country club. As a result of this accident, Juliet meets black haired, blue-eyed Declan Brennan, guitarist for the band, The Clovers, which also includes Declan's younger brother, Danny, his sister Sinead and his cousin Sean. After the concert in a moment of passion, Juliet and Declan impulsively hook-up, something Juliet regrets and feels intensely guilty about since she has been dating Jason for four years.

In the morning she meets her Aunt Kathy who has arrived from Portland Oregon. Kathy attempts to explain to Juliet her mother's situation, reiterating that she was abusing alcohol and prescription drugs not because Juliet's dad left her but because she has been unhappy for a long time. Kathy explains that her mother will have to go into a long-term facility for treatment and that she should consider moving back to Oregon with her. During her aunt's stay, life goes on for Juliet. She continues working at Children United, working on her SAT homework and seeing her SAT tutor. Juliet decides to turn down both Kathy's request to return to Oregon with her and her father's offer to live with him in New York and instead chooses to move in with her Jason's family.

Life is further complicated for Juliet when Declan shows up at Milltown High the first day of class. Attracted to him, but feeling guilty for cheating on Jason, Juliet tries to ignore Declan but Sophia, also attracted to him, draws Declan into their circle of friends. When she does finally talk to Declan she tells him what happened was a mistake.

Juliet goes to see her mother in the hospital, but the visit is upsetting because her mother is still very medicated and the woman she sees is nothing like the mother she remembers.  After the visit Juliet begins to think more deeply about her life and wonders why everything has to be "perfect".  After The Clovers have a successful gig at the Coffeehouse, they are offered the Friday night spot. Needing a new lead singer because Sinead has to travel to Boston every weekend in starting in January, Juliet is asked to join the band.

After rewriting the SAT Juliet seriously considers joining the Clovers, something Jason does not approve of. But when Juliet also suggests they not attend Harvard next year, Jason becomes concerned. Jason doesn't understand Juliet's desire not to attend Harvard because Harvard is their "future". After this Juliet decides to rehearse with the Clovers even though it will mean being around Declan. Juliet loves being in the band but her first gig with them doesn't happen after Sean and Danny are in a car accident, leaving Danny seriously injured.

As Juliet struggles to make sense of her life, Jason struggles to understand the changes in Juliet. Although Juliet continues along the path she has planned, studying to improve her Latin scores, she becomes increasingly disillusioned with her life. Her mother's return home and the changes in her mother and their relationship, as well as revelations about her parents by Oliver, lead Juliet to begin to make different choices from what she and Jason planned. Juliet's ambivalence towards Harvard continues even after she and Jason are accepted to Harvard early action. Being perfect seems to mean just doing what everyone expects of you. But is that what Juliet really wants for her life?


Better Than Perfect focuses on the effect family expectations can have on people, particularly if those expectations do not jive with what that person wants for their life. Juliet comes from a family where everything has to be perfect. Her boyfriend, Jason's family is much the same. They have both been raised that to be the best at everything is the way to be happy. Yet Juliet has seen that in her family this has not brought happiness to her parents. "Out my back window I could see the pool. The pool guy, the gardener, the house was its own little economy. All these people working so hard to make everything clean and pretty and well manicured. And with all that, my parents still hadn't been able to be happy together."

Being perfect hasn't brought Juliet the happiness she thought it would either. She has a perfect SAT and an early admission to Harvard. But she has not taken the time along the way to enjoy life. "Had I ever just gone home from school and hung out? I tried to remember, but I couldn't really remember anyone in my family just hanging out. We were all always doing something. Squash. Piano. Homework. Planning a vacation. Packing for a vacation. Unpacking from a vacation. Running errands. Making reservations. Organizing play dates. Soccer. Little League..."

Eventually Oliver reveals to Juliet that while their family was trying to be perfect, none of them were really happy. "Dad was trying to make all this money. Mom was trying to have the perfect family. I was trying to be the perfect student. You were trying to be the perfect student. But was anyone happy? Apparently not." 

Juliet comes to realize that if she continues to do what everyone expects of her she will never be happy. "There'd be graduate school and a job and a career and promotions. In a horrifying waking nightmare, I saw Jason and my parents and all my future classmates and colleagues and mentors and bosses telling me to keep doing something I hated doing because someday I would be glad I had done it." 

This leads her to tell her mother "And I know I'm disappointing you and Dad and everyone, but I feel like if I keep doing what I'm doing, I'm just going to be unhappy forever."  Juliet's mother understands because this is exactly what did happen to her. Her mother's quiet acceptance of what Juliet feels empowers her to break up with Jason. Juliet's relationship with Jason mirrors her parent's relationship. Like her parents, Juliet and Jason gradually grow apart but unlike her parents this is the result of being young and maturing. Juliet recognizes that she has different goals in life and that fitting into family expectations is not as important to her as it is to Jason. Juliet recognizes this and breaks off the relationship so that she doesn't end up like her parents.

One of the strengths of this novel is its portrayal of the effects of marriage breakdown on older children. We often assume teenagers will be able to cope with separation and divorce easier than younger children, but as Kantor's portrayal of Juliet's family breakdown demonstrates, teens can feel confusion, alienation, anxiety and deep anger. They may think they understand what has happened but often they do not. What happens to Juliet's family raises some hard questions especially around blame. Juliet at first blames her father for leaving but when she comes to know more about her parent's relationship she starts to realize that it was more complicated than she was aware of. Juliet's father tells her that he and Juliet's mother simply grew apart, not a fully honest answer considering what eventually was revealed. But is growing apart a reason for divorce? Should one person get to be happy at the expense of everyone else in the family?

Among the weaknesses in Better Than Perfect are the portrayal of casual sex without any consequences and also the long term sexual relationship Juliet and Jason have, also without seemingly any emotional or physical consequences. 

Although the situations of the characters in this novel, wealthy and leading a very priviledged life are not familiar to most teens, their struggle to make their own choices and forge their own path will resonate. Most young people would love the opportunity to attend Harvard and to live in a family wealthy enough to afford cars, gardeners and pool cleaners. This makes Juliet's dissatisfaction with her life seem shallow. However, as is often the case, being wealthy does not guarantee happiness.

Overall, Better Than Perfect is well written and will appeal to those readers interested in novels about high school and relationships and coming of age.

Book Details:
Better Than Perfect by Melissa Kantor
New York: HarperTeen     2015
324 pp.

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