Thursday, 20 March 2014

Perfect by Judith McNaught

Perfect (1993) (Pocket Books)
Judith McNaught
Grade: B+
Genre: 'contemporary' romance
Sex scenes: mild
Source: own
Second Opportunities: (1) Paradise, (2) Perfect 

Actor Zach Benedict’s childhood wasn’t as exciting or torrid as the media makes it out to be, but he doesn’t bother to correct them. Aged seventeen, Zachary Benedict Stanhope III was cut off from the family fortune and thrown onto the streets by his formidable grandmother. Unable to return to school, he hitches a ride to Los Angeles and when he lands his first role as an extra, he doesn’t look back.

Now an award-winning actor and director, Zach’s latest film Destiny is expected to land him yet another trophy. On top of the stress about the film being over-budget and overtime, Zach walks into his hotel room on the penultimate day of shooting to find his two main characters in bed together – that is, his wife in bed with another man. The air on set the next day is electric. Their last scene is a steamy standoff between the lovers and a gun filled with blanks. At the last minute, Zach uses his director’s prerogative to have Tony shoot at Rachel. The blanks aren’t blanks.

Charged and convicted with Rachel’s murder, Zach is sent to prison as all his acquaintances turn their back on him. Inside, Zach has forced himself to be the model prisoner in order to get the privileges associated with good behaviour. Five years after he was first incarcerated, Zach has finally got his escape plans down to pat. He manages to get away but events aren’t running as smoothly as they should be and he needs to get to his next rendezvous point quickly …

A child of the over-worked foster system, Julie grew up under the impression that she was unwanted and unloved. Aged eleven, she’s illiterate and given the opportunity to start a new life with the Mathison family. Julie suddenly finds herself with two older brothers that she comes to idolise and parents that don’t care about her past transgressions; suddenly, Julie strives to become the perfect daughter to prove herself worthy of their love.

Now a schoolteacher, Julie is a model citizen. She coaches the wheelchair basketball team, teaches at Sunday school and has recently started teaching illiterate women how to read and write. She desperately needs funds for this new scheme and decides to travel to visit a past benefactor to see if he will contribute towards the equipment. She’s on her way home when her fate collides with Zach’s. Julie discovers too late that Zach is a fugitive and she’s become his hostage.

It doesn’t take long for Julie’s face to become as famous as Zach’s is infamous and if possible, Zach is even more despised than before. Julie, however, is convinced of Zach’s innocence in his wife’s death, but he won’t even speak of it, let alone try and find the real killer. Their forced confinement is harrowing on the both of them and as an unlikely bond forges between them, they must work to uncover the truth before their time runs out …

I‘ve wanted to read Perfect for ages. It always ranks highly amongst Judith McNaught’s books on AAR Top 100 lists, though not quite as high as Paradise. I bought both recently, as well as Whitney, My Love, but just hadn’t gotten around to reading them. Whitney had been the priority because of the notoriety attached to it, but I was very aware that Paradise and Perfect had achieved similar status within the romance community. You can read samples of both Paradise and Perfect on Amazon, but they have that annoying thing where one random page out of three chapters is missing in the sample, and while it whets your appetite, but you know that that missing page was vital in your overall understanding. I’d read both samples for Paradise and Perfect and just liked Perfect more. It was what I was expecting while at the same time not; I liked it anyway but it’s a stark reminder of how the romance genre has moved on over the years.

Julie aged eleven is a real terror. She skives school, knows how to hot-wire a car and don’t be surprised if she steals the earrings from your lobes without you noticing. Nevertheless, she has a kind heart and is desperately ashamed of her illiteracy. She moulds herself into the perfect daughter once she moves in with the Mathison family, but I would have loved to have seen more glimpses of her former self. She despairs a few times that the reason that she’s so drawn to Zach is because they’re both ‘broken’ characters; I hate this. Her childhood is as much a part of who she is as her adulthood and she is a much stronger person than she would have ever been. It drove her to want to be her best and I’m a firm believer that people can change if they want it enough and work to actually make difference happen. Julie shouldn’t belittle herself as she does over the course of the novel, and while we tolerate it in Perfect, I doubt that such a protagonist would garner the same acceptance in a novel written today.

Perfect features classic Judith McNaught angst at its best. It made me want to cry and castrate Zach; I was tempted to hurl the book out of the window but as much as I despaired at times, I can’t help but love it. I’m still quite pissy about how little grovelling Zach did and how easily Julie took him back, but not nearly on the same scale as Whitney. As a classic McNaught hero, Zach can be unbearable during the angst period. His righteousness is nauseating and as you would expect of an AlphHole hero of his time, stopping to think of the heroine’s POV just didn’t cross his mind. He eradicates Julie from his life and vocabulary in the blink of an eye and yet she just takes him back as if nothing had happened. Yes, he’s unbelievably guilty once he realises that he’s in the wrong, and I admit freely to getting some perverse satisfaction when the ball drops and he realises with shocking clarity that he completely fucked Julie over, but he doesn’t know how to apologise and it just makes me angry that his breed of hero can just smile and make the heroine forget weeks/months/years of heartbreak.

If Whitney, My Love was my longest romance novel ever, Perfect takes the runner-up prize at a hefty 674 pages. There were many similarities that I both adored and despised, though Perfect is the much preferred of the two. For one thing, Zach pisses me off a whole lot less than Clayton, though it’s not hard to do considering how much of an AlphHole Clayton is. Perfect was a good read, though by no means perfect. There’s a great number of elements that I would take great offense at were this a 2014 publication and to be honest, I’m not quite comfortable with what that says about me that I have accepted Perfect as a product of the early-1990s. Read this if you want an example of a romance ‘classic’, but don't say that I didn't warn you.

Image courtesy of Simon & Schuster.

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