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Everyone dreams about the perfect life, but an obsession with perfection can be crippling. Cara Sykes is beautiful, rich, and destined for Stanford. She has the seemingly ideal circumstance; however, unreal parental expectations have already sent her twin brother, Conner, to a psychiatric hospital for attempted suicide, and Cara herself, confused over her sexual identity, is afraid to admit that she is not sexually drawn to her boyfriend, Sean, but rather to Danielle, a girl she meets snowboarding. Her admission will destroy the perfect image her parents have impressed upon her. Sean O’Connell, a baseball star resolute on earning a scholarship to Stanford to be near Cara, pumps iron and takes steroids to become the perfect hitting machine, but the steroids send him into a spiral of rage. Paralleling their relationship is the story of two sisters, Kendra and Jenna Mathieson. Kendra, Conner’s former girlfriend, will do anything to become a supermodel, including starving her 5'10" frame down to a size 2, having rhinoplasty and a breast augmentation, and having sex with older men in the modeling world who promise to take her to the top. Jenna, wounded by living in the shadows of her “perfect” sister, pops pills, drinks, and flaunts her sexuality. Andre Kane, Jenna’s rich boyfriend, does not escape perfectionism—his mother is a plastic surgeon who turns image dreams into reality, and he himself, interested in becoming a professional dancer, fears sharing his passion with his parents because they believe a perfect life includes a financially rewarding career. Driven by expectations, all five teens feel disempowered and fear not living up to expectations. In order to survive, they must find courage to stand up for who they really are.
Is perfection a reality or an unattainable abstraction? Explain.
In what ways do today’s youth feel a need to be perfect?
Is the need for perfection self-imposed or is it caused by external forces? Why are some individuals more driven than others to be perfect? Explain.
How does Cara view her parents? Describe her relationship with them. What happened to her brother, Conner?
Compare and contrast Kendra and Jenna. Are they close? Why or why not?
Why does Kendra’s mother impress the importance of pageants upon Kendra? What effect does the pressure have?
Jenna appears not to be driven by perfection. In fact, she seems to retaliate against her parents’ expectations, but she is self-destructive all the same. Explain.
Why does Jenna take Andre with her to have lunch with her father and his future wife? Why does she not feel good enough for Andre?
Sean begins as a likeable character, but as the story progresses he spins out of control. Why does he have difficulty accepting Cara’s sexuality?
Andre feels special affection for his grandparents. What did he learn about pursuing one’s dreams from his grandfather? How are his decisions affected by his relationship with his grandparents?
Kendra believes “Empty is the perfect state of being” What does she mean? What other characters in the story would agree with her? How might they define empty?
Sean lost his parents at an early age. How might this loss affect his fear of losing Cara? How might it impact his behavior?
Cara says, “Transformation begins—and ends—inside of you.” What accounts for this belief? What does it say about her ability to deal with her parents’ expectations of her?
When Sean learns that Cara is no longer interested in him, he does not want to stop his anger. He says he doesn’t want to stop it “because anger feels better than the pain of losing someone.” Do you agree or disagree? What accounts for Sean’s perspective?
In what way is Cara impacted by her brother’s death? Her parents? What does Sean learn from Conner’s death?
Shantell is a minor character in the story. In what way does she foil Jenna’s personality? What does Andre learn about relationships from Shantell?
One might say Andre finds release in dancing. Explain.
Which character has the most difficult challenges to overcome? Why? Who is the most likely to succeed and why?
Compare and contrast Andre’s mother and Cara’s mother. Which mother is more capable of understanding the damage she may have caused as well as her son’s or daughter’s feelings? Who is more likely to admit she has made parenting mistakes?
How can an emphasis on perfection make an individual believe he/she is not worthy or good enough?
Identify passages for the main characters that illustrate their perspectives on and/or definition of love. Do their beliefs change throughout the story? What accounts for the way they define relationships? Write a short poem from the perspective of one character that illustrates his/her perspective on male/female relationships.
Individuals who have been driven to be perfect often say they are afraid of failure. Why might this fear exist? Is it rational? Interview a family member or another older person about how he/she set goals in high school. What goals did they achieve and what or who influenced the choices they made? What fears did they have? What would they change now if given the chance?
Hopkins’s work is rich in metaphor. Examine the metaphor that begins “Some people say love is fire.” What does this metaphor tell readers about the complexities of love? Find other examples of metaphor in the text and discuss their meaning. Try your hand at writing your own metaphor for perfection.
Research statistics on teens and plastic surgery or steroid use. What trends do you see? What dangers exist for young people who undergo plastic surgery or who use steroids?
Guide prepared by Pam B. Cole, Professor of English Education & Literacy, Kennesaw State University, Kennesaw, GA.
This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.
Ellen Hopkins is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of eleven young adult novels, as well as the adult novels Triangles, Collateral, and Love Lies Beneath. She lives with her family in Carson City, Nevada, where she has founded Ventana Sierra, a nonprofit youth housing and resource initiative. Visit her at EllenHopkins.com and on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter at @EllenHopkinsLit.