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Book Review: Perfect Escape by Jennifer Brown

I am a reader and a librarian, but I am also an aunt.  My sister-in-law has 4 boys, 3 of whom are autistic.  I remember once taking the “typical” sibling to a pizza place for dinner and he looked around in awe and wonder; it was almost like he had just entered Disneyland for the first time.  It was then that I realized that even though he was now in the 3rd grade, this was in fact the first time he had been to a pizza place because when you have 3 autistic siblings – your life is different.  I think often what it must be like to grow up in a home with a sibling (or siblings) that has any type of issues (in part because one of my children has some chronic digestive issues and food allergies).  And earlier this year, TLT teen reviewer Cuyler Creech wrote about his experience being the older sibling to a brother with Down’s Sydrome and Autism.  And this question, this idea of what it is like growing up in a home – under the shadow often – of a sibling with issues is the core of what Perfect Escape by Jennifer Brown is about, and she captures it perfectly.

We all knew what Grayson’s “Difficulties” were.
Grayson’s difficulties dominated his life.
and Mom’s and Dad’s. And mine.
Sometimes it felt like especially mine.
(Back jacket copy of Perfect Escape)

Kendra is in the middle of her junior year when her life begins to unravel in new and gloriously complicated ways.  It’s not like her life as ever been easy; how can it be when your older brother has OCD and a variety of anxiety disorders?  But the things that are happening to her now – well, they are entirely her fault.  She has always been the perfect child, trying to overcompensate for all of Grayson’s imperfections.  But what will happen when everyone finds out what she has been up to?
“We could, I thought. We could get away.  The two of us.  Neither of us could go home and pretend life was wonderful. Both of us knew it never would be, even if it was for entirely different reasons.”
(from Perfect Escape by Jennifer Brown)
In a split second decision, Kendra decides to take off with her brother across the country to California to see an old best friend, Zoe.  Years ago Grayson’s difficulties made Zoe’s family leave, but Zoe promised they would never forget one another.  Surely that promise still holds true, and Grayson always seemed the most at peace with Zoe.
As Kendra and Grayson set off across the country, Kendra comes to realize many truths about herself.  There are so many thoughtful discussions about family, sibling relationships, living in the shadow of a sibling – any sibling – and the expectations we put upon ourselves.  There are a couple of those glorious moments that you expect to find in a road trip novel, but this is road trip like no other because this one involves Grayson (more on this in a minute).
Along the way Kendra and Grayson pick up a teen mother named Rena, fleeing with her baby from an abusive older husband.  Like Zoe before, it sometimes seems as if Grayson is slightly better in the presence of Rena.  But none of them have any idea how gloriously Garyson can really melt down, until he finally does and Kendra is the only one around to help him.
Perfect Escape is a thought provoking, touching, well written contemporary novel that touches on some very basic themes.  It also does a tremendous job of providing insight into what it can be like to be the sibling of a person with mental health issues.  This is one of several books that I have read this year dealing with the topic of OCD (The Butterfly Clues by Kate Ellison, for example), although this is the only one that presents a sibling point of view. 
Perfect Escape takes the classic concept of the Road Trip, and puts a unique spin on it by adding all of Grayson’s quirky complications and rituals.  It is hard to drive across the country when you have to walk in and out of a door 36 times (always an even number) and your mind can imagine every health hazard that lays upon the hotel room beds.  It is even harder to have a road trip where you are trying to run away from your problems when those very problems seem to define every moment of who you are and how you have to live your life.  In the end, Kendra realizes that it is not so much that she can cure her brother or run from her own problems, but that she can learn to maybe accept who they both are and try to just go on from there.  Just like real life, there are no neat and tidy resolutions wrapped in pretty packaging and tied with a bow.
There are a couple of interesting things that happen here.  One, our main character, Kendra, is often not a likable character and is even aware on some levels that what she is doing is completely selfish and self destructive – but I found that I somehow cared.  But more importantly, throughout the course of the story she grows and often allows herself to be honest.  In those honest moments, you get a glimpse of just how difficult it has been for her.  It is interesting, too, to hear Grayson discuss that it has been equally hard for him growin up in his sister’s shadow, knowing that he was so completely imperfect and costing his family so much while she was the perfect child he could never hope to be.  The truth is, siblings, no matter who they are and how much they may love each other and be loved at home, can’t seem to escape the comparisons that come from being united by blood and parentage.  Sibling relationships are complicated in the most basic of situations and there is never any escaping the pain and glory that comes from having siblings, whoever they turn out to be.
Well written, emotionally raw, and completely honest, Perfect Escape is the road trip you didn’t know you wanted to take.  The characterization is spot on, the dialogue is sharp, witty and sometimes cuts to the quick like the conversation in most families, and the moments of insight are moving.  If you have a sibling that you haven’t talked to in a while, you will want to pick up the phone when you are done.  And maybe, just maybe, teen readers will take a look up from their book and pause for just a moment as they consider their own siblings.  4 out of 5 stars for the rich emotional journey that is Perfect Escape.
Topics discussed in Perfect Escape include OCD, siblings, cheating in school, loss of friendship, running away, teen moms and perfectionism.  Every library should purchase this book because it touches on important topics (OCD is often a co-diagnosis with Autism, both of which are growing in incidence among today’s youth) and presents an important POV, being the sibling of an individual with mental health issues.  Perfect Escape will be published in July by Little, Brown School (978-0-316-18557-8)