Note: If you watch Pretty Little Liars, the television series on ABC Family, I should say that I have only watched about 2/3 of the first season and that based upon what I have seen, the series diverges from the books. So I have no idea if I will be spoiling the TV show with my review. Fair warning!
Perfect by Sara Shepard (2007)
Do you know what I love? When an author is unafraid to make the worst possible thing happen to her characters and send them into full-crisis mode. That is exactly what Sara Shepard has done in Perfect, book three of her Pretty Little Liars series. A lot of the secrets that the main characters have been keeping explode in Perfect. If you haven’t read the first two books in the series–Pretty Little Liars and Flawless–then you should look away now. Here be spoilers.
I think some background and context would be helpful. This series follows the stories of four main characters–Hanna, Spencer, Aria, and Emily. They are juniors at Rosewood Day prep school in Rosewood, Pennsylvania. The four girls were best friends when they were in seventh grade, pulled together by Alison (Ali) DiLaurentis, the queen bee. Ali disappeared the summer before their eighth grade year, and in the first novel, her body is discovered. Part of the mystery that drives the series (at least so far) is finding out who killed Ali. But the other thing that drives the series is that Ali knew all of the girls’ secrets and tormented them before her disappearance–Hanna struggles with bulimia, Spencer has a habit of stealing her sister’s boyfriends and is obsessed with being the perfect student, Aria has kept the secret of her father’s infidelity from her mother and lusts after her English teacher, and Emily is a lesbian but is terrified of what will happen if she acts on her feelings. At the start of the series, the girls have drifted apart and are no longer friends, but they are all tormented by texts and e-mails from “A” who knows all of their secrets and manipulates them into doing what he or she wants in exchange for keeping their secrets. The girls have no idea who “A” is, and that’s also part of the mystery. Caught up?
Perfect has a wonderful epigraph: “Look and you will find it–what is unsought will go undetected” — Sophocles. It sets the stage for the whole novel, which revolves around the puzzle of a video that Aria took of the five girls one night before Ali’s disappearance. “A” taunts all of the girls, telling them that Ali’s killer is right there in front of them, all they have to do is look, and by the end of the novel, the girls think they know the identity of Ali’s killer and “A”. But for a while, this is just a subplot because, well, these girls do have lives to live. Hanna’s friendship with her best friend, Mona, is on shaky ground. It’s Mona’s birthday, and a series of events leads to the fateful night of the party, where Hanna is brought to an emotional crisis and comforted by a new male character (Lucas) that I hope will be sticking around for a while. Meanwhile, Spencer’s parents have decided that perhaps it would be good for her to see a therapist. During one of the sessions, the doctor hypnotizes Spencer, and she realizes that she has blocked out parts of the night that Ali disappeared. These memories begin to come back to her as the novel unfolds until she, too, reaches a moment of climax where she fears that she may have played some part in Ali’s disappearance. And, remember that essay of Melissa’s Spencer stole and turned in as her own in Flawless? Well, her economics teacher nominated the essay for a national award, bringing Spencer all kinds of unwanted attention and fresh anxiety about her plagiarism being exposed. Like Hanna, Spencer wants to appear flawless and perfect, but she’s anything but. While that’s happening, Emily keeps going back and forth about her relationship with Maya. Then, just when it seems like she has accepted her attraction to Maya and wants to be with her, “A” outs Emily’s relationship to everyone at a swim meet, including Emily’s parents, who threaten to send Emily to live in Iowa if she doesn’t go through a program that is intended to “rehab” her back into heterosexuality. Finally, things have gotten bad for Aria in this novel. Her mother throws her out of the house and so she goes to live with her new boyfriend Sean’s family, but then Ezra decides he wants to try again, only that doesn’t really end well either. There’s a moment where Aria has nowhere to go, not even home. Throughout and in more ways than one, Shepard plays with the plot of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, which Aria’s AP English class is reading, and it’s kind of brilliant.
I try to keep these reviews to 1000 words and I’m almost out of space, but if you’re at all interested in what you’ve read here, pick up the first book in this series and give it a read. I feel like I’m consuming these books and I’m totally okay with that. The next book, Unbelievable, is already on my bookshelf. What I love about this series is that the characters are well-developed and there are so many social issues in play–sexuality, family dynamics, the pressures on young adults to succeed academically and in sports, the secrets we keep and why we keep them, the meaning of friendship, eating disorders, the social dynamics of high school, and even the behavior of “A” can be read as bullying. Plus they are just fun to read and because the point-of-view of each chapter switches so that we get the story from a different girl’s point-of-view, I’m totally pulled into the lives of all four characters and can’t wait to see what will happen next.