Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Sara Barnard continues to tell great stories. Her characters are relatable, and their situations have just the right scope. Goodbye, Perfect is about dealing with disruption and discomfort in your life caused by people close to you—especially when part of that disruption is re-evaluating what you know about a person. It’s about the nature of loyalty, family, and friendship. There’s a lot going on with the main character, and even though this is a fairly short novel, Barnard wastes no pages in establishing various subplots and emotional arcs that pay off towards the end.
Trigger warning in this book for sexual relationships with a minor.
Eden McKinley has always looked to her best friend, Bonnie, for stability. Eden has embraced her reputation as the somewhat rebellious or troubled teenager—not to the point of ever really landing in trouble, but certainly hot water here or there. Bonnie, in contrast, is the eponymous “perfect” girl. With GCSEs imminent, everyone expects Bonnie to excel and Eden to scrape by, including the two of them. That is, until Bonnie runs away with their high school’s music teacher. Eden finds herself near the centre of the story, constantly questioned by police, parents, and other people: how could you not know?? Except she didn’t. Bonnie, perfect Bonnie, best-friend-Bonnie who told Eden everything … did not tell her about this relationship, at least not at that level of detail. And that’s eating Eden up inside, even as she struggles with another secret: Bonnie has told Eden where Bonnie is.
As with Holly Bourne’s The Manifesto on How to Be Interesting, Goodbye, Perfect’s portrayal of a relationship between a girl and her teacher was more than a little uncomfortable to read from my point of view as a teacher. It was a little easier here, maybe, just because we didn’t really see the grooming happening first-hand. The book kind of starts with Bonnie and Mr. Cohn as an item, with Bonnie running away with him (“Jack”), and Bonnie constantly defending their “love” to Eden. The other adults in the story regularly remind us that Mr. Cohn has crossed way too many lines, and that’s really helpful. Even Eden herself is fairly set on the idea that Bonnie needs to stop this and come home (although perhaps more because she’s concerned about how Bonnie will do on her exams than about the illicit affair).
So this book isn’t so much exploring why or how teenagers fall prey to these relationships. Rather, it asks us to consider the perspective of a close friend to one of these teenagers. When Bonnie goes missing, what’s it like to be involved in the case? To have people around you constantly asking you if you knew more than you said? Not all of us go through such experiences (thankfully), but I can imagine that for any readers who have been in similar, even if not exactly the same, situations, Eden’s experiences must resonate. It’s really easy for us to say, “Oh, here’s what I would have done…” but I suspect that in the heat of the moment, with other stresses on top of this one, it would not be so easy.
Barnard in her other books has been fantastic at portraying texting/messaging between adolescents in an authentic way, and she continues this in Goodbye, Perfect. From Eden’s incredulous, “HOLY FUCKING SHITBALLS” to the staccato, often sporadic types of messages received from Bonnie, Barnard replicates the way teens use these forms of synchronous/asynchronous communication. Sometimes less is more, and all it takes is a single line of text for us to understand more about the relationship between these two friends.
Honestly, though, the Eden–Bonnie dynamic wasn’t the most interesting part of the book to me. I suppose that’s because Bonnie was so definitively wrapped up in her infatuation with Mr. Cohn that it seemed like Eden would never get through to her. I was more interested in Eden’s relationship with the other people around her. I loved learning about (and seeing, in all the little ways) the supportive home life she had with her adoptive parents. Similarly, I wish we had seen more between Eden and Daisy, and even perhaps learned more about their birth mother. These are tantalizing elements of this world that Barnard just doesn’t have time to get into—nevertheless, she does try her best to flesh out these characters’ stories. I am not adopted, myself, but I know some adopted people who crave more stories with adopted characters. Goodbye, Perfect offers that, with a bonus that the story itself isn’t about the character rediscovering their roots, finding their birth parents, etc. Being adopted is just a part of Eden’s life—and certainly a big part, of course, since it informs her relationship with her family, including her adoptive sister, Valerie.
Valerie and Eden, surprisingly, became my favourite part of this story. The road trip they take, the heart-to-heart, the awkwardness of it all … again, it feels real and more powerful for it. There’s actually a moment, prior to that, this exchange between Eden and Carolyn, that I adore:
“… You have to be gentler with people. You can’t just choose people you like and push everyone else away.”
“Because people change, in both directions. Because at some point a person you like will do something you don’t like and it will pull the rug right out from under your whole world,“ she says pointedly. “And that sort of thing is a lot easier to deal with if you have a wider network around you, instead of just a chosen few. Valerie came all the way down here to be here for you, and you’ve practically ignored her since she arrived.”
Carolyn is advising Eden not to push people away just because they aren’t already close, that sometimes that person you’re close to (cough, Bonnie) isn’t going to be there for you, and you need other options. Big mood. While I am a somewhat heavy door, as my friend Rebecca likes to call me, and I have a small number of close friends, I like to think I’ve tried to widen my support network sufficiently to get me through those difficult times. This is a crucial lesson to learn.
Really, that’s what Barnards books often remind us: adolescence is a time to learn important things, about ourselves and people in general, before we are out there, in the “real world” of adulthood, where such mistakes might be costlier. The ending of Goodbye, Perfect emphasizes this: Eden and Bonnie don’t speak, even after the latter returns to school to finish her GCSEs. Eden moves on, away from her school and into the next chapter of her life. There is no touching reunion, no make-up scene, and very little closure in the sense of learning how Bonnie deals with this trauma—because it isn’t her story. And, as Eden gradually starts realizing by the end of the book, that isn’t Eden’s story either. Her story isn’t, “I was the best friend of someone who ran off with her teacher,” but rather, “I am my own person who is pursuing a love of plants and a future for myself.”
It can be hard to remember that we are our own people, and not people in someone else’s story.
Goodbye, Perfect certainly has the trademark easy readability that I love about Barnard’s writing. It didn’t quite inspire for me the same emotional highs and lows that Beautiful Broken Things or A Quiet Kind of Thunder did. Those books were phenomenal, and it isn’t this book’s fault if I liked it a little less in comparison to those two. It was still a lot of fun to read, and I love the characterization and dilemmas.