The Perfect Age
Heather Skyler
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The Perfect Age

Heather Skyler
W.W. Norton
320 pages
May 2004
rated 3 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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Heather Skyler’s prose is refreshing, her characters either touched by the bright heat of the Las Vegas sun or the cool respite of a darkened sky before the assault of another summer day. Summer is pivotal in The Perfect Age, the cauldron from which a family is shaped and reshaped, changing their dynamic in unexpected ways.

Helen is fifteen, on the cusp of that youthful clumsiness that gives way to feminine grace, her angles smoothing into curves. She has begun to intuit her power over men, the youthful sexuality that draws male eyes to her lithe beauty. In the short months until Helen turns eighteen, every important issue of her young life surfaces, challenging her perceptions of the world as she has always known it, hinting at the uncertainties that come with maturity. Experiencing physical love for the first time, the complexity sex adds to a relationship, the separation from her mother as protector and the safe cocoon of family unsettle the young woman, leaving her edgy and unsure.

Suddenly aware of her parents' marriage, Helen senses the subtle intrusions of the world into daily life, both exhilarated and angered by her inability to understand or control events. Over these three summers, she sloughs off the comfortable skin of youth, struggling to define boundaries with Leo, her boyfriend, both drawn to and repulsed by their new intimacy. Helen’s mother, Kathy, carefully noting the changes in her daughter, is also feeling a similar unrest, bored with her comfortable marriage to a predictable man. Change is a potent motivator for Kathy as well, but she has the security of maturity to guide her.

The Perfect Age is a family drama in an exotic setting, but the usual problems assail the characters: boredom, and familiarity, the gradual diminishing of passion, teenage angst and mid-life crisis. The temptations are the same, the pull toward distraction, anything to avoid reality. The author also allows her protagonists their small personal flaws, imperfections that humanize them.

Las Vegas is the perfect setting for a subtle class struggle; the Larkin family is financially secure, educated. The men the females pull into their family dynamic are somewhat disposable, lacking in social approval (“quality”) and therefore, far less powerful. But the class differences are subliminal in Skyler’s study of a mother and daughter in transition.

As Helen grows into young womanhood, mother and daughter confront the core of their hostilities, and Kathy searches for the strength to allow her daughter’s first tentative steps into an adult life that leaves black and white values behind for shades of gray. Skyler has her fingers firmly on the pulse of this family, sensitive to the unnerving upheavals they experience over time, months that spell an end to innocence and the beginning of a more imperfect, if more livable peace.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Luan Gaines, 2004

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