There is a disconcerting sense of fatefulness in The Perfect Girl, a brutal balancing of the scales when one terrible set of circumstances begets another,
the events occurring over a two-day period. Primary characters narrate the drama: Zoe, a
17-year-old piano prodigy with a burdensome past; Tessa, Zoe’s aunt, a veterinarian who has encouraged Zoe and her mother, Maria, to move nearby; Sam, Zoe’s attorney during the trial after the fatal accident that altered her young life forever; Richard, Tessa’s handsome husband, treating his depression with an excess of alcohol; and Lucas, Zoe’s new half-brother, equally gifted on piano.
Zoe has been found guilty of driving drunk after a teen party, her three passengers killed in an accident. Her mother, desperately advocating for her young daughter, forfeits her husband in the process.
She is utterly defeated when her beloved child is sentenced to incarceration, although intensive therapy does help Zoe cope with the traumatic circumstances. At Tessa’s urging, Marie and Zoe leave Devon for Bristol, England, where they hopes to leave the past behind.
The novel opens on a Sunday night in Bristol as Zoe and Lucas, visually striking in their lightness and darkness, take the stage in a rented church hall, gifted piano prodigies performing together. Maria and Lucas’s father, Chris, met because of their children’s exceptional talents.
Their attraction bloomed into love and marriage, what Maria calls her “Second Chance Life”. The couple has a baby, Grace--Maria’s “Second Chance Baby”.
Everything is finally hopeful, perfect. After the destruction of their world three years before, it has to be perfect. And it is, until a man bursts into the concert, ranting maniacally, overcome by grief and rage: the bereaved father of one of the dead teens. Recognizing him, Maria tries to quiet the man as Zoe flees the stage. In that one violent emotional outburst, Maria’s careful perfection is shattered.
Maria drives her daughter home. Tessa remains behind while Lucas finishes the performance, intending to take a confused Chris and his son home when the boy has finished his performance. The perfectly planned concert to introduce Zoe to Bristol music lovers is suddenly an incident rather than an event. The drama fractures into each of its parts, separating truth from façade as experienced by each narrator,
most peripheral. Zoe is trapped in the heart of a family tale that began under a shadow with a terrible accident and marks her forever with its consequences, a secret left behind in Devon. The “Second Chance Life”, so carefully orchestrated by Maria, has sustained a blow, perhaps a mortal one.
This tightly wound domestic drama is filled with contrasts, from the crushing of hope by tragedy to the promise of another life, a mother determined to restore to her child what she has lost. Macmillan makes concessions to contemporary times--technology, cellphone apps, cyber-bullying--but the human responses are the same.
Catastrophe is writ large through poor decisions, fear or bad intentions, people coping, judging, forgiving, cruel and relentless, the age-old story: a façade of happiness, while monsters lurk under the bed. Lucas has his secrets, Tessa as well, all pushed toward the surface with the revelation of a harrowing tragedy, Zoe meeting once again with lawyer Sam in a closed room. The Perfect Girl proves the myth of its title, bright-haired, ivory-skinned Zoe the putative princess in a fairytale-cum-nightmare suffused with ghouls and the riotous laughter of destruction. Dangerous territory, this, where children have no defense and handsome princes sometimes wear masks. This psychological mystery both seduces and horrifies, Macmillan choreographing a perfect dance devastating in its relentlessness.