Almost Perfect
by Patricia Rice, contemporary (2002)
Ivy, $6.99, ISBN 0-449-00603-4

Almost Perfect is a book that doesn't know what to do with the brilliant characters it has. Sort of like a movie where the brilliant stars are wasted in a mediocre script. I mean, how often do we get an ex-con, ex-junkie heroine with a very brittle and bitter outlook in life? And her foil, the good-natured comic artist who has to grow up to be with his woman? Put in a sympathetic juvenile delinquent in the making and his slow-witted sister, and Almost Perfect is a beautiful drama waiting to happen. Patricia Rice chooses cheap and easy melodrama instead, thus ruining the whole story and assassinating the heroine's character beyond repair.

The ex-con heroine is Cleo Alyssum, last seen as the screwed-up sister in Impossible Dreams (another book with great characters but a plot that doesn't even come close to doing them justice). Today, she is trying her best to straighten herself out for her son. No drugs, no run-ins with the law, nothing. She cloisters herself in a run-down cabin (she'll tell you it's not run-down, it's classic) wired by her special burglar alarm system to keep intruders out. Her only friends are two kids, Gene and his slow sister Kismet, whose mother is the local drugged-up alcoholic.

Don't expect Cleo to inherit any money, baby. She's white trash, through and through. I love this.

In comes cartoonist with severe writer's block, Jared McCloud. Jared is the rich, indulged guy whose family is old money. He does angst-ridden teen comics, sort of like Daria, I guess. Cool. I like. But he needs new ideas or he will be hung out to dry by his people for breach of contract. He decides to rent that run-down beach house that belongs to Cleo some distance away. Soon he finds himself entangled with the lives of Cleo, Kismet, and Gene.

I love Jared. He has no baggages. He has this amazing ability to find humor in every situation he's in. If his family laments that he can't grow up, he'll have a wisecrack comeback to that. Cleo, who is hard and brittle, could use a man like that to help her see the better sides of life. Cleo is an ex-con who has led a really gritty and hard life, but she never makes apologies for her past - for the most part. Instead, she just wants to be a better person for her son.

If Jared and Cleo are allowed to develop their relationship slowly, this story could have been magic. Same with Jared's relationship with Gene and Kismet. I love how Jared slowly realizes that hey, he can do something that has meaning to other people, and I also love how Gene and Kismet - and Cleo - come out of their shells.

For the most part, Cleo is no fairytale princess (Jared plays that role). The decisions she makes can be difficult to sympathize or even understand, but I respect that. The frustration I feel, I'd like to think, is because I have started seeing Cleo as a real person.

Then the author derails everything towards the late third of the story for some cheap rescue melodrama. Cleo is slowly becoming whole, but the author ruthlessly turns Cleo into a cowardly, whiney, regressive moron who snaps at the slightest provocation - what happened to that strong Cleo who fought to stay strong for so long? All this is good if I want to read about strong, mighty Jared swooping in to rescue Cleo, but not at the expense of Cleo's complete regression. No, not just regression - a complete jettisoning of Cleo's character. It's like an alien mothership coming down to zap Cleo away and replace her with an inferior clone programmed to be a helpless Miss Minnie.

I am furious, yes. The author has me rooting for this strong woman who is only slowly healing, only to kick me in the teeth by making the woman a brainless "Save me! Save me from myself!" rescue fantasy ragbrained doll. Is there a point to this? If there is one, short of deliberate character assassination of poor Cleo, I don't see it.

I'm furious just thinking about what the author did to Cleo, really. "What a waste" is too much an understatement to describe the tragedy that is Almost Perfect. Still, for a while, you know, it's actually almost perfect. Almost, but... aw shucks, man, this really sucks. I feel like crying at missing out on the great story this one could have been. Man, it really sucks big time.

(Why am I so worked up anyway?)

Rating: 82

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