The word “perfect” has many connotations. We dream of the perfect vacation, the perfect home, the perfect family, the perfect job. But for each of us, that word, perfect, has a different meaning. In “Her Perfect Life,” Hank Phillippi Ryan presents a main character, Lily Atwood, whose life seems perfect. She’s a television reporter, and her onscreen image is as beautifully perfect as her offscreen life. She lives in a beautiful house with a beautiful seven-year-old daughter and a beautiful nanny, and she scrupulously maintains her appearance to be beautiful. Everything about Lily matches the Instagram hashtag her fans have created: #PerfectLily.
But perfection has its price, and for Lily that price is leaving behind her past. She never talks about her sister, Cassie, who at eighteen disappeared under murky circumstances while at college. Lily was only seven, but she adored her big sister, who left her a stuffed penguin before she disappeared. We learn about what happened then and now through clearly labeled chapters. The chapters about the past, the then, are all from Cassie’s point of view.
It’s through those chapters, labeled “Then,” we begin to understand what Cassie’s life was life just before she disappeared and, more importantly, we understand Cassie’s insecurities and her inability to make important decisions in times of crisis. It’s an important reminder that at eighteen, ostensibly the age of adulthood, people are really still immature children whose ability to make sensible, wise decisions is not yet developed. Cassie makes poor choices, and we see how those poor choices will affect the rest of her life.
Interestingly, the only first person narrative is from Greer, Lily’s producer, and that first person narrative allows us to see the jealousy that Greer feels for Lily. She convinces herself that she’s not jealous, but as is often the case with first person narration, we can see the envy eating at Greer. She envies Lily for her apparent perfection: her looks, her beautiful home, her lovely daughter, and her success.
We also “meet” the mysterious Mr. Smith through both Lily’s and Greer’s narratives. He has been providing Lily with information which has led to great news stories. But as the story goes on, Lily becomes uncomfortable with him, whoever he is, because he seems to be stalking her. He knows where she is and what she’s doing. And as we read the narratives from Lily, Greer, and Cassie, we find we are no closer to discovering who Mr. Smith really is, and even after we think we do know who he is, there are questions remaining. Who sent the flowers to Lily’s home? Who sent the penguin toy that is an exact replica of the one Cassie left with Lily? Are those gifts ominous or Cassie’s way of trying to reach out to Lily from wherever she has disappeared to? Is Cassie even alive?
Lily’s problems are not limited to her sister. Her daughter, Rowen, doesn’t know who her father is, and we see Lily’s anger at the situation and her determination to keep Rowen safe at all costs. But when Rowen is caught up in the secrets and the mystery behind the elusive Mr. Smith, Lily has to decide whom she can trust. And we see that while she may not like a person’s actions, trusting someone depends more on who that person really is — a good person or not.
In the end, we find out that some people are not who they appear to be. To be honest, one of the revelations is something that we readers know Lily could have discovered with a simple Google search, but that fact doesn’t diminish the efficacy of the reveal. Book clubs will enjoy discussing what is a #perfect life, and what does perfection even mean? Do all eighteen-year-olds make such poor decisions? We see children that age go along as their parents scheme and bribe their way to get entrance to elite schools for their children, so poor decision making is not limited to young adults. It’s easy to look back and say, “If only Cassie had confided in her mother, or some other adult she trusted,” but often teens don’t trust their parents and don’t have other trusted, responsible adults in their lives.
Trust. That’s the issue at the core of each character’s problems. Whom can one trust to do the right thing? And once that trust is broken, how does one go about restoring it? Is that even possible? We realize that if we have one person, or multiple people, in our lives whom we trust, we are lucky indeed.
Please note: This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.