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In a Perfect World

About The Book

From critically acclaimed author Trish Doller comes a “tender story that’s both realistic and hopeful” (Publishers Weekly), set in Cairo, Egypt, about the barriers we tear down for the people and places we love most.

Caroline Kelly is excited to be spending her summer vacation working at the local amusement park with her best friend, exploring weird Ohio with her boyfriend, and attending soccer camp with the hope she’ll be her team’s captain in the fall.

But when Caroline’s mother is hired to open an eye clinic in Cairo, Egypt, Caroline’s plans are upended. Caroline is now expected to spend her summer and her senior year in a foreign country, away from her friends, her home, and everything she’s ever known.

With this move, Caroline predicts she’ll spend her time navigating crowded streets, eating unfamiliar food, and having terrible bouts of homesickness. But what she finds instead is a culture that surprises her, a city that astounds her, and a charming, unpredictable boy who challenges everything she thought she knew about life, love, and privilege.


In a Perfect World

My forehead is pressed to the small oval window when the Pyramids of Giza come into view. From so far overhead they remind me of the elementary school diorama I built from a shoe box and pictures cut from Grandma Irene’s National Geographic magazines. She kept the issues stacked in neat piles on a shelf in her closet and I remember how the older ones—from the sixties and seventies—listed the topics down the yellow spine: EGYPT OTTERS ALASKA’S GLACIERS BALLOONS. I’d found three issues with articles about Egypt, and even though the magazines were in pristine condition, Grandma didn’t mind me ruining the pages.

In all those photos, the pyramids seemed to stand in the middle of a vast golden sea of sand, but from this elevation, the outskirts of Cairo bump up against them in a way I would have never expected. Through the hazy layer of smog that hangs over the city, everything is the same color as the desert—if there are trees down there, I can’t see them yet—and the Nile meanders through the middle like a dark ribbon.

“That island right there is where we’ll be living.” Mom touches her fingertip to the window as the plane begins its descent, but there are a few islands in the river and it doesn’t really matter which one she’s talking about. Instead I seek out soccer fields, backyard swimming pools, housing developments, thick green clumps of parks—anything that might make Cairo resemble Cleveland or Chicago or New York City. Might make Egypt seem less . . . foreign. Except when the flight attendant reminds us to fasten our seat belts for landing, she does it first in Arabic, then in English, reminding me that this city—our new home—is six thousand miles from the one we left behind.

Our new home.

I press a nervous palm against the metal buckle of the belt that’s been strapped across my lap for the better part of two days. Since we left Frankfurt nearly four hours ago. Since the eight-hour flight across the Atlantic from Newark. Since the two-hour hop from Cleveland.

This isn’t the first time I’ve flown—we take yearly trips to visit Uncle Mike and his family in the Florida Keys—but this journey has worn me down. I know I should be excited about landing in a completely different country for the first time ever, but there is a toddler in 18B who won’t stop crying. The man sitting behind me keeps thumping the back of my seat every time he moves his legs.

And I can’t stop thinking about everything I’ve given up.

My summer plans were locked down. Hannah and I had been hired to work at one of the admissions gates at Cedar Point. Owen came up with a bucket list of things to do before graduation, like sneaking into the abandoned Prehistoric Forest at night to see the fake dinosaurs in the dark, tracking down the cemetery in Cleveland where an angel statue is said to weep, and going to the Renaissance fair dressed in costume. Also, my parents had already paid the deposit for soccer camp at Ohio State. For as long as I’ve been playing, my personal goal has been to make captain of the girls’ team in my senior year, but now there’s no chance of that happening. My not doing these things won’t stop the world from spinning, but that doesn’t mean I won’t miss them.

“I hate this part.” Mom grips both Dad’s hand and mine as the plane makes its final approach. It takes a certain level of fearlessness to relocate to a country where the government is not super-stable and the fear of terrorism is real, so it’s hard to believe my mother is afraid of flying. Still, I give her hand a gentle squeeze and watch out the window as the ground rushes up beneath us. The runway is in the desert, where all the colors have faded to a singular dusty tan that stretches out to the horizon, and it feels as if our destination is nowhere at all.

The wheels bump, the brakes roar, and when it is clear we’ve landed without crashing, Mom releases her death grip. Her mouth spreads into an excited smile and her voice lifts a couple of octaves. “We’re here!”

• • •

A couple of weeks ago, Dad and I took the ferry to Kelleys Island to celebrate the end of school, a tradition he started when I was in kindergarten. Each year we spend one whole day circumnavigating the island on our bicycles, eating fried perch sandwiches at the Village Pump, and collecting stones from the state park beach on the north side. When I was little, I would gather as many stones as the basket on my bike could hold, so many that it made pedaling hard. Dad would suggest I lighten the load and made me live with the consequences when I refused. As I got older, he taught me how to wet the stones in the lake to bring out their true colors. It’s still hard not to overload my basket, but I’ve become more discerning with age. This year my haul was just one perfect stone flecked with pink and black quartz.

On the way back to the ferry landing at Marblehead, as we stood at the rail watching a couple of kids fling bread in the air for the gulls, Dad broke the news. “You know how your mom has always wanted to work for OneVision?”

OneVision is a nongovernment global health organization like Doctors Without Borders, except OneVision provides eye examinations and glasses to people in need, and eye surgeries to restore sight. For as long as I can remember, it has been Mom’s dream to work for OneVision, to help people see.

The wind whipped at my hair and I peeled a strand away from my mouth. “She said she would wait until I finish high school.”

“That was always the plan, but they need her now,” Dad said. “She’s been asked to establish a clinic in Cairo and she really wants to say yes.”

What about me?

I didn’t ask the question out loud because that would have made me sound like a spoiled brat. Even thinking it felt selfish. Soccer camp and high school bucket lists were much smaller dreams than OneVision, but that didn’t mean I didn’t still want them.

“What about you?” I asked instead.

Dad is the captain of an offshore tugboat that pushes a gas barge up and down the East Coast. He works on an alternating schedule—two weeks on, two weeks off—which hasn’t always been an easy way to live. Mom and I fall into a routine that gets disrupted whenever he comes home, and if anything important happens when he is away, Dad is not there for it. He’s spent more than one Christmas at sea. He’s missed soccer games, gymnastics competitions, and birthday parties. It’s an unconventional way to be a family, but we manage.

“I have to keep my job,” he said.

“Can’t I just stay with you?”

“How would that work?”

“I’m seventeen,” I pointed out, but he gave me a look that even his Ray-Bans couldn’t hide. One that said there was no way my parents would even consider letting me stay home alone while Dad was at sea. “Okay, so maybe I could live with Grandma and Grandpa when you’re gone. Or Grandma Irene.”

His eyebrows lifted above the top of his sunglasses. “You’re telling me you would rather move to a retirement community filled with elder humans than to the cradle of civilization?”

“When you put it that way . . .”

“I know this is not how you imagined your senior year.” Dad dragged a hand up through his salt-and-pepper hair and I caught sight of my name inked in black around his wrist like a permanent bracelet. He’d gotten the tattoo when I was one day old, just after they filled out my birth certificate. “I get it. I really do. Flights to Cairo are going to eat my time and money, but I’m willing to make the sacrifice because it is important to your mom.”

“Are we going to sell the house?”

“The program requires a one-year commitment,” Dad said. “So we’ll rent out the house until we get back.”

The thought of someone else sleeping in my bed made me ache, starting in my heart and radiating out into the rest of my body. I blinked a few times, trying not to cry, but when my dad wrapped his arms around me, I came undone.

We’ve lived in the same pumpkin-orange bungalow on Finch Street for as long as I’ve been alive. As the ferry churned through the deep, shimmering blue of Lake Erie, I could not imagine living in another house in another city in another country. Even now, as our plane taxies down the runway toward the terminal in Cairo, I still can’t fully wrap my mind around it.

Dad stands in the aisle, pulling down our carry-on bags from the overhead compartment, and I inhale deeply, pushing against the tide of tears threatening to spill. There is no point in crying.

We are here.

About The Author

Photograph by John Cohen

Trish Doller is the author of Something Like Normal, which was an ABA New Voices Pick and a finalist for NPR’s Best-Ever Teen Novels, among many other accolades; Where the Stars Still ShineThe Devil You KnowIn a Perfect World; and Start Here. She has been a newspaper reporter, radio personality, and bookseller, and lives in Fort Myers, Florida, with a relentlessly optimistic Border Collie and a pirate.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (May 23, 2017)
  • Length: 304 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781481479882
  • Grades: 7 and up
  • Ages: 12 - 99
  • Lexile ® 880L The Lexile reading levels have been certified by the Lexile developer, MetaMetrics®

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Raves and Reviews

A white Catholic teen from Ohio spends her months in Cairo getting to know her gorgeous Egyptian driver while learning about social justice and international fellowship. When her mother gets the chance of a lifetime to open up a Doctors Without Borders-style eye clinic in Egypt, Caroline's both nervous and excited. She ignores dire warnings from her beloved-but-"racist" grandmother, who's convinced terrorists lurk around every corner. Cairo gains appeal when Caroline meets her driver, Adam, an aspiring chef who shows her a Cairo beyond stereotypes: not just pyramids, but churches, jerk chicken, and Egyptian reggae. At every opportunity Caroline muses on how Egypt resembles home: the call to prayer like church bells, Islam's attitude about dating resembling her grandmother's, the unmet promises of the Arab Spring compared to Ferguson. Adam and Caroline have much in common (they've both been sorted into Hufflepuff, for instance), but religion, class, and culture demand they stay apart. Caroline's awareness of the imperialist undertones of her relationship with Adam doesn't make her stop loving him, and they both struggle to do what's right. There's a place for unsubtle messaging about white Americans learning to see humanity in the Muslim world, and Caroline—with her likable tattooed father and her mouthwatering descriptions of food—is a pleasant vehicle for the lesson. Pair with Aisha Saeed's Written in the Stars (2013) for an insider point of view of Islam. (Fiction. 12-16)

– Kirkus Reviews, 4/1/17

A romance meets travel novel in this work that takes readers from the suburbs of Ohio to the bustling streets of Cairo. Caroline’s summer plans get an unexpected detour when her mother is hired to open an eye clinic in Egypt. Caroline and her family uproot and move across the globe. Teens will be able to taste the koshary and feel the tension as Caroline navigates the streets of Cairo as a young blonde woman, subjected to, at times, street harassment and angry remarks. The teen meets Adam, the handsome son of the family driver, and he quickly helps her adjust to Egyptian and Muslim customs. The story isn’t devoid of the Westerners as saviors trope, but the author attempts to portray the Muslim characters in a sympathetic and evenhanded way. When Caroline is accosted in the street by a catcaller, she explains the situation to Adam, who offers a compassionate response. His family is presented with tenderness. Doller describes Caroline’s relatives who “watch Fox News” as having rigid views of Muslims, and the protagonist makes comparisons between the Muslim and Christian faiths. The plot moves along, pushing Adam and Caroline together, and a union is foreshadowed fairly early on. The story is light yet touches on timely topics without feeling bogged down or too didactic. The narrative is told through Caroline’s point of view, and the language and style feel authentic. Readers will connect with Caroline’s experiences in a distinct and fascinating place, and the heated romance simmers. Fans of romance set in far-off places will not be disappointed. VERDICT A great addition to any library collection, especially where Gayle Forman’s Just One Day is popular.–¬Christina Vortia, Wesley Chapel, FL

– School Library Journal, April 2017

Instead of enjoying her senior year of high school in Ohio, Caroline Kelly unexpectedly moves to Cairo, “where the government is not super-stable and the fear of terrorism is real,” so her mother can fulfill a dream of opening an eye clinic in “Garbage City,” home to Cairo’s most impoverished inhabitants. A practicing Catholic, Caroline is eager to learn about Islam and Egyptian culture, but she struggles to adjust to the crowded urban environment, the mosque’s predawn calls to prayer, the fact that she needs a driver to take her around the city, and frequent sexual harassment. A growing friendship with her driver’s teenage children, Adam and Aya, helps her acclimate, and things look up when she discovers that her crush on Adam is mutual. With humor, sensitivity, and empathy, Doller (The Devil You Know) conveys the complexities of an interfaith, intercultural romance: the blatant disapproval from Adam’s family and friends, her parents’ worry (“The kind thing to do would be to leave him alone”), and Adam’s own doubts. It’s a tender story that’s both realistic and hopeful.

– Publishers Weekly, April 3, 2017

The summer before her senior year in high school, Caroline’s family moves from Sandusky, Ohio, to Cairo, Egypt, where her mom will run an eye clinic for the poor. It takes Caroline time to adjust to the new rules and culture (long pants and tunics rather than cutoffs and tanks; a driver to take her everywhere) and the language, but as she makes friends, she falls in love with both the city and a boy. Just as Caroline is finding her place in her new world, her mom’s clinic is bombed and Caroline’s time in Cairo, as well as the story, comes to an end shortly after.

Doller paints a vivid picture of an expat-teen’s life in Cairo: part fascination, part fear, and a little bit of guilt. With detailed descriptions of popular and less familiar tourist spots; mouthwatering descriptions of Koshary, ful, Gebna makleyah, and other foods; and a bit of Egyptian Arabic, this is the perfect tour guide disguised as a YA novel. The straight forward story—a teen falls in love with a new city and a boy—belies the important lessons learned in this story. The theme of the novel is not subtle: Egyptians are different from Americans, but they are also similar; people who are different are also similar. Caroline blushes when she catches herself making assumptions: why would she think that Egyptians would not enjoy reggae, heavy metal, and Harry Potter? The reader learns, through identifying with Egyptian culture and people and with Caroline’s expanding perspectives, to examine their own filters through which they see “others.” This book is a quick read which will inspire discussions, travel, and perhaps a bit of empathic understanding about people who are different from the reader.—Beth Karpas.

– VOYA, April 2017

Caroline planned on spending the summer before her senior year of high school at soccer camp with her best friend and roving around Ohio with her boyfriend. Instead, she is forced to confront the unfamiliar, as well as her own assumptions and privilege, when her mother accepts a job at a global health organization in Cairo, Egypt, for a year. Reluctant at first, Caroline comes to marvel at Cairo’s colorful, vivid sunsets and rich history, especially when her family’s driver falls ill and his son, Adam, becomes her guide. Doller (Something like Normal, 2012) subtly builds suspense and carefully crafts romantic tension into every word shared between Caroline and Adam—no wonder they fall for each other despite Adam’s Muslim faith and his family’s warning that the relationship is haram (forbidden). The novel is ultimately told from an outsider’s perspective, but it questions and challenges stereotypes more often than it reinforces them. Together, Caroline and Adam go to great lengths fighting not only for each other but also for their dreams. — Caitlin Kling

– Booklist online, April 7, 2017

Awards and Honors

  • Wisconsin State Reading Association's Reading List
  • Keystone to Reading Secondary Reading List (PA)

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More books from this author: Trish Doller