You Asked for Perfect

  • Review
By – July 15, 2019

High school senior Ariel Stone, the cen­tral char­ac­ter in Lau­ra Silverman’s new nov­el about high­ly pres­sured over­achiev­ing teens, is always read­ing Crime and Pun­ish­ment. The Russ­ian door stop­per of a book is either on his phone while he pre­tends to pray dur­ing Shab­bat ser­vices, or in audio­book for­mat as he quick­ly moves from one class or extracur­ric­u­lar activ­i­ty to anoth­er. Ariel’s con­stant prox­im­i­ty to Dostoevsky’s moral­ly intense clas­sic, assigned read­ing for his A.P. Eng­lish class, is the per­fect sym­bol of his end­less quest for per­fec­tion. There is no down time for Ariel; all of his time is ded­i­cat­ed to the man­ic pur­suit of excel­lence, and ulti­mate­ly, to an offer of admis­sion by Har­vard. Silverman’s cen­tral char­ac­ter is Jew­ish and bisex­u­al; she explores both of these aspects of his life with sen­si­tiv­i­ty and real­ism. Yet in the end, Ariel is Every­man or Every­teen, try­ing to attain a goal whose very mean­ing has become near­ly meaningless.

Ariel is a char­ac­ter young adult read­ers will rec­og­nize and embrace. The nov­el is full of details which bring him to life, from its painstak­ing cat­a­logue of A.P. cours­es and their rel­a­tive dif­fi­cul­ty, to its descrip­tions of his lov­ing father and moth­er, a ded­i­cat­ed civ­il rights lawyer and a muck­rak­ing jour­nal­ist. In a poignant irony of par­ent­ing, they are com­plete­ly accept­ing of his sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion, yet at the same time, unaware of their son’s anguish every time they men­tion that he is apply­ing to Har­vard. The cast of the nov­el is mul­ti­cul­tur­al, from Ariel’s Kore­an-Amer­i­can best friend, a les­bian musi­cian, to his love inter­est, Amir, the son of a Pak­istani-Amer­i­can fam­i­ly as close as Ariel’s own. There are many details which touch upon the com­plex­i­ty of reli­gious and eth­nic iden­ti­ties. The Stone family’s Judaism can­not be eas­i­ly cat­e­go­rized. Like many Amer­i­can Jews, they pick and choose from their tra­di­tion, find­ing their own way with­out a sug­ges­tion of hypocrisy. Ariel’s fam­i­ly almost always spends Fri­day evening togeth­er, bless­ing the can­dles and wine, and bond­ing over mat­zo ball soup. (The author’s con­stant ref­er­ences to the soup’s excel­lence and its uni­ver­sal approval by Ariel’s non-Jew­ish friends seems a bit too per­sis­tent.) Lat­er, Ariel and his friends might enjoy a sec­ond meal at a Thai restau­rant. A sub­tle ref­er­ence to the fact that Amir’s sis­ter, Rasha, wears a hijab, although their moth­er does not, also grounds the nov­el in chang­ing reli­gious prac­tices across cultures.

Sil­ver­man builds ten­sion with sub­tle­ty and nar­ra­tive exper­tise. Read­ers begin by won­der­ing if Ariel will indeed main­tain his sta­tus as vale­dic­to­ri­an, but grad­u­al­ly become aware, along with Ariel him­self, that his psy­che is frac­tur­ing and may not sur­vive. The authors win over read­ers who might be skep­ti­cal that this hyper-accom­plished son of afflu­ent par­ents mer­its so much empa­thy. Ariel shows solic­i­tude for his equal­ly pres­sured younger sis­ter, is aware that he has let down his friends, and is open to help from Rab­bi Solomon, a per­cep­tive and kind woman who offers him Tal­mu­dic wis­dom and man­del­bread when he is about to faint on Yom Kip­pur. Ariel is a grow­ing mentsch caught in a trap where “…good grades will get me into a good school. And a good school will get me a good job. And a good job will get me a good life.” Young adult read­ers will become absorbed in Ariel’s quest for per­fec­tion and in his grad­ual awak­en­ing to a con­fus­ing and decid­ed­ly imper­fect sense of self-worth.

The author includes a recipe for mat­zo ball soup at the end of the book. High­ly recommended.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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