***CAUTION: SOME SPOILERS AHEAD***
I finally finished book #2! It was Perfect by Ellen Hopkins. I had never read anything by her before, and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.
I must admit, at this point, my mind is kind of mushy in terms of functioning with people in the real world. I can still get caught up in the stories, even though I’m reading/listening to three at the same time, the plot points seem to blend together. The more I read in this fashion (about 20 minutes of Bitter in the Mouth, then roughly 30 minutes of Perfect, then a couple stolen moments of The Abstinence Teacher and then repeat the cycle) I couldn’t help but see some similarities between the stories. As I mentioned before, it’s tricky to keep each character in his/her book, especially if characters in different books share the same name. This is a likely commonality, especially considering that the names in question are common themselves (like Bobby or Sarah).
In a more general sense, the three books all feature flawed characters and their relationships (with each other, with themselves, and with the world at large). I guess you could say this of all books. With this thought in mind, it doesn’t seem unrealistic to confuse certain characters. In theory, why couldn’t one of them “jump ship” and play a part in another book?
One of the troubled teens from Perfect could mask his drug problem from the world until he goes off the deep end and then find Jesus and ultimately ends up as the recovered drug addict in The Abstinence Teacher (well, he would also need to have a talent for creative time travel: in this scenario, he would be 18 in 2012 and then in his early 40’s in 2007…)
My point is that no matter how “original” a story seems, it has more in common with the rest of the books on the shelf than might be evident at first glance. I don’t think this is a bad thing, I think it indicates that there are far more universal themes in the world that we realize. The ones that immediately come to mind for most of us are love, hate, competition, betrayal-these things seem primal and instinctive, so of course everyone can relate to them. But, I would argue that little things can strike a chord with everyone, too, but perhaps in a more subtle way. These themes are more difficult to identify because their manifestation comes in many forms.
For example, in Perfect, Kendra, an aspiring model with an eating disorder, constantly compares her body to her sister Jenna’s curvy figure. Her sister seems to have no reservations about eating whatever she likes and this infuriates Kendra, who is starving to death for a chance on the runway. In The Abstinence Teacher, Ruth decides to do something completely spontaneous and out of character because she longs to “catch-up” with her older, more experienced sister. And, in Bitter in the Mouth, Linda measures her teenage life by the behavior of her best friend, who is flirtatous and spends most of her time trying to attract a boy’s attention. In all three relationships, the girls are defining who they are by comparison-in a sense determining who they are by carving away what they are not. Kendra is not comfortable in her own skin like Jenna. Ruth is not her sister’s equal until she loses her virginity. Linda is not in her best friend’s social circle, and also can’t bring herself to sell out in order to be accepted.
Isn’t this what we do everyday? We look to others to be our mirrors both through their behaviors and their reaction to our behaviors. The reflection gives us information about who we are and who we are not. Both sets of information seem to prove invaluable to constructing a complete self-image.
Ellen Hopkins stressed in an Author’s Note at the end of Perfect that everyone should strive to develop their own inner beauty and appreciate others’ unique perfection. Her book focuses on the horrible things that can happen if people feel that they are not enough. Although I agree that teenagers especially are suseptible to insecurities brought up by comparing themselves to others, but I think the truth is that these mirrors are all around us and we can’t avoid them-they are an integral aspect of human perception.
The reflected image is not always straightforward, in fact it’s often fraught with contradiction. To use an example outlined above, Kendra works hard to reach a size two, which she believes to be the ultimate female form. She tortures her body to attain this goal, all the while seeing her sister eat whatever she wants, and still draw attention to her size 10 frame. The message here is that confidence is attractive, not size. Kendra may have the “perfect body” but she has none of the self assuredness that makes her sister so charasmatic and appealing. The mirrors that others hold up for us to see won’t necessarily give us clear, simple answers, but they can give us clues into our own psyches.
We can choose how we react to the reflections we see. And if we can choose to see the mirrors for what they are-a way to perceive, not a constant source of judgment, maybe we can start to appreciate the image reflected back to us as a method for understanding ourselves and the world.