"Touching, thought provoking, not a thriller per se as suspense is limited.…"
The Perfect Girl is a touchingly profound story of a parent fulfilling their dreams through their child and simultaneously a heartbreaking insight into just how a parents misplaced nurturing can focus undo emphasis on one aspect of a child's character, honing it to the point of obsession and thereby coming to define a child by their ability. This is a tragic story which should be compulsory reading for all parents nowadays and it is both a poignant and deeply thought provoking read. In an increasingly competitive world where gaining the edge is at the forefront of every parents mind as they launch their offspring into the 'survival of the fittest culture' of the modern world, The Perfect Girl is more relevant than ever.
Precociously talented pianist Zoe Guerin is the epitome of a gifted child at the age of fourteen, but one mistake leads to a very spectacular fall from grace and has seismic repercussions. As a music scholar at a prestigious school she is made well aware of her status as 'official pond life' and the Popular Girls that rule the roost are very keen to make sure that she knows her place. Bullied and with her self-esteem cripplingly low, she is attracted to the fringes of the hangers-on that ache to be cool and fit in amongst the Popular Girls. Until one mistake changes all of that, and Zoe's life becomes a question of "what if's" and shows just how fickle fate can be. Taking what she thinks is the most sensible decision in the circumstances and driving her drunken best friend home one moment of lapsed concentration leaves Zoe facing responsibility for the deaths of three teens whilst driving under the influence of drink. A damning charge for anyone, even more so for a fourteen-year-old who should never have been behind the wheel in the first place and swears blind she never knowingly consumed excessive alcohol. Sentenced to eighteen-months in a Secure Unit, mother Maria's life descends into free fall as her determination to save Zoe's promise and obvious potential drives a wedge between her and husband, Philip. Until that is Maria, Zoe's Key Worker at the Unit, Jason and her sister, Tessa come to the agreement that her talent could also be her route to redemption.
As Zoe performs her first recital post life in the Secure Unit, now living anonymously under the name Zoe Maisey in a suburb of Bristol, complicit in keeping her past a closely guarded secret from step-father, Chris and his son, Lucas, she understands the strained tension which reigns inside the confines of her new home. Perceptively coined as her Second Chance Life, step-brother, Lucas and Zoe take to the stage and begin a duet, only for an furious outburst from a grieving parent of one of the children left dead in the car accident to throw her new life up into the air. Just hours later that Sunday evening Zoe's mother, Maria, is dead. The synopsis tells readers of Maria's fate prior to the outset of the novel, and builds on the heightened anxiety in the aftermath of the outburst and Gilly Macmillan makes her readers wait for the horrific event. The timeframe of Sunday night through to Monday morning is placed under a microscopic spotlight as Macmillan delivers a blow by blow account of the drama that unfolds, allowing glimpses into Zoe's past to drip feed through to form a clearer picture of just what has brought her and the ever supportive Maria to this point. Emotions are clearly worn on sleeves and in the heady aftermath of the downfall of the Second Chance Family in the Second Chance Life granted to her, Zoe's on-point narrative also reveals her estrangement from her natural father, Philip. Zoe is hugely thankful for her post Secure Unit shot at a new life and although she is sensible enough to acknowledge the instability of her mother, Zoe's willingness to go along with the charade and keep her past secret from Chris shows just how firmly devoted to her mother she is.
Zoe is an easy person to vie for but the reality is that she has seen and heard enough during her time in the Secure Unit to understand that her history cannot be erased and she is "damaged property", with the knowledge that her reputation that will often go before her. To all intents and purposes, Zoe was sober when she took the wheel of the car and someone's else's testimony was her downfall. In Zoe's eyes her honesty was never rewarded in the ensuing trial, reflecting just how flawed the justice system can be. Inevitably it is this knowledge which is at the forefront of Zoe's mind in the closing stages of the novel and the most lasting reflection of her time inside has shown her that there is a often a stark difference between the truth and the hand that the justice system deals out. Sometimes the system is flawed and it was a source of real pity for me that at the age of seventeen Zoe is sceptical of how unjust this can be. That Zoe is cynical in the wake of her mothers death and to some extent plays the system is understandable as she factors in the implications of the nightmare that she finds herself amidst.
Written using multiple points of view offered by Zoe, her aunt Tessa and her solicitor, Sam Locke, this is a heartbreakingly sad novel. Sam, like many of the professionals who came into contact with Zoe during the course of her prior life is profoundly sympathetic, and his impartial observer commentary reveals his sadness at just how Zoe's future has been compromised, neither deserved or in the least bit reflective of her behaviour in general. Sam is emotionally drawn into the plight of her situation by his burgeoning relationship with Zoe's aunt Tessa. Not hearing from step-father Chris but merely observing his brooding menace as he struts around his perfect home emphasises the threat that he poses over the fragile calm that holds court in Zoe and Maria's Second Life. Zoe's fiercely ironic humour and sharp wit is wonderfully incisive, often cutting through the futility of a life spent papering over the cracks. Zoe does not expect to eschew her responsibilities for her behaviour, but the unfairness of her honesty resulting in a guilty outcome at her trial does stick in her throat and undoubtedly plays a part in her knowledge that she has to take control of her destiny in the wake of Maria's death. Admittedly both Tessa and Sam sympathise with the situation that Zoe finds herself in, and perhaps a voice from her past, either natural dad, Philip, or a parent of one of the teens whose lives were taken would have added a contrasting opinion and perhaps made for a more balanced feel towards the attitudes of a young girl who made one fatal mistake.
In hindsight, perhaps the ending is tied up a little neatly, but The Perfect Girl is an engrossing read that poses so many important questions about nurturing our children that I reflected long and hard. Gilly Macmillan delivers a brilliant portrayal of a girl who deserved better, not simply shoehorned into a home life bound by strict adherences to social conventions. Insightful step-brother, Lucas is Zoe's only ally within the home and they both see what their parents trying to hold up the proverbial house of cards. The suspense element of The Perfect Girl is limited as readers know Maria's outcome and despite racing through this book, I did have a very strong inclination of what the future would hold for Zoe, Lucas and baby Grace. The Perfect Girl is less a thriller, more a touching insight into a bright future comprised by one mistake. To Zoe, piano playing is never considered as a gift, but rather something that she works hard at, practising for hours. Whether Zoe pursues her piano playing as avidly as she does knowing that it is her mother Maria's wish seems likely, although this is never addressed by Macmillan. The Perfect Girl is a sharp insight into how damaging the bond between a parent and child simply trying to do their best for each other can be.
The Perfect Girl is at times an uncomfortable read as the spotlight is turned onto Zoe's future but it left me with plenty of food for thought and has also introduced me to Gilly Macmillan, whose highly rated debut, Burnt Paper Sky (now re-titled What She Knew) is firmly in my sights! The sub-plot of Tessa, married to alcoholic husband, Richard and drawn to sensitive solicitor, Sam adds a frisson of tension to proceedings and I was pleased that Gilly Macmillan also provided a resolution to both this and Zoe's future into the close.
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