In Melissa Kantor’s Better Than Perfect, 17-year-old Juliet seems to have it all. She lives a privileged life, she’s been dating her boyfriend, Jason, for four years, and they’re both on track to go to Harvard. But after her parents split up and her dad moves out, her mother spirals. Juliet knows her mom has Good Days and Bad Days, but doesn’t really have any idea just how bad things have gotten for her mother until she finds her passed out on the bathroom floor after having overdosed on some pills. Later that night, Juliet makes out with Declan, a cute boy in a band, which sets in motion many weeks of self-analysis. Unfortunately for Juliet, this period of reassessing what she actually wants in life comes while she’s living with Jason and his family, who have taken her in while her mother is institutionalized. Suddenly, that 2400 on her SATs and future that looks all planned out doesn’t look like the thing she’s worked for and wanted—it looks stifling. Juliet is forced to consider if her family was ever actually happy, just how miserable her mother has been, and if being “perfect” is all it’s cracked up to be.
This realistic look at the pressures teenagers put on themselves both to be high-achieving and to somehow get their whole lives figured out by 18 follows a predictable path, but readers will root for Juliet to finally make her own choices. Secondary characters are not as well-developed as Juliet is—some of the friends mentioned may as well not exist—and Juliet never fully owns up to the mistakes she’s made, but that sort of blindness/self-absorption fits with her character.
Also, though her mother is clearly suffering from mental illness, this is not a book about mental illness very much. Yes, it’s a little about how it affects Juliet (she has to live with Jason, it forces her to interact with her father, she worries about her mother, she starts to take stock of her life), but the mental illness is mostly off the page. Her mom is “sick” and “sad” and apparently had been abusing her pills/drinking with them. She’s briefly institutionalized and the doctors mess with her meds, but much of her story is left to the imagination. Again—this is Juliet’s story. The ending isn’t tidy—there are a lot of unknowns still in her life and relationships that will need work—but what in life ever is?
Overachievers who’ve ever considered stepping off the path will relish Juliet’s journey to finding out who she really is.
REVIEW COPY COURTESY OF EDELWEISS
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 2/17/2015