Where is the line between what we ask of ourselves and what is enough, what others ask of us and what we can give? These are questions that blur for Ariel in Laura Silverman’s You Asked for Perfect.
There’s so much going on in high school, none more so for Ariel than getting into a good school, the right school, and it’s of the utmost importance to get the best grades, be the best person, so that Harvard will choose him. Because if he isn’t selected, what else is there?
Thank you to The Fantastic Flying Book Club for allowing me to join the book tour for Laura’s latest book. For more stops on the tour, check out the tour schedule below or the link here.
Published: 5 March 2019
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Category: Young Adult/Contemporary/LGBT+
For fans of History is All You Left Me and Love, Hate and Other Filters comes a new and timely novel from Laura Silverman about a teen’s struggle when academic success and happiness pull him in opposite directions.
Senior Ariel Stone is the perfect college applicant: first chair violin, dedicated community volunteer, and expected valedictorian. He works hard—really hard—to make his life look effortless. A failed Calculus quiz is not part of that plan. Not when he’s number one. Not when his peers can smell weakness like a freshman’s body spray.
Figuring a few all-nighters will preserve his class rank, Ariel throws himself into studying. His friends will understand if he skips a few plans, and he can sleep when he graduates. Except Ariel’s grade continues to slide. Reluctantly, he gets a tutor. Amir and Ariel have never gotten along, but Amir excels in Calculus, and Ariel is out of options.
Ariel may not like Calc, but he might like Amir. Except adding a new relationship to his long list of commitments may just push him past his limit.
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Rep: bisexual Jewish MC; gay Pakistani Muslim MC; plus size lesbian Korean SC; Muslim SC; anxiety
CW: drug use (pot); underage drinking, both as part of religious practices and not.
I was not the kind of student that Ariel and his contemporaries were, but I do remember school being difficult for me. Reading this book reminded me of the pressure that, nonetheless, was still there. Remembering that was its own kind of horror because it could be all encompassing.
You Asked For Perfect is told from the first person perspective of Ariel. Multiple times throughout, he mentions how he’s concerned that any show of weakness and a fellow student, Pari, a girl whose grades, violin skills, etc., are all comparable to his, will take everything from him: first chair, valedictorian, everything. He does say, though, that she’s also a good friend. It’s was heart wrenching to imagine the setting in which these kids could be both good friends & sworn enemies. The toxicity that academia leached into their lives was frightening.
As the story unfolded, levels of Ariel’s image of perfection unfolded, how he came to this stage in his life where there was such a precarious balance of GPA points and extracurriculars. School (his teachers, fellow students) was one thing, which I’ll touch on later, but there are also something about his family. Even if it was an unintentional act by his parents, there is a scene that I think may have imprinted on him:
Some Friday nights we have matzo ball soup with dinner because my parents are superhuman, working hard all week and still providing home-cooked meals.
It was great to see Ariel’s family come together, having a meal and talking about their day, sharing highlights and bloopers and so on. However, the point here is that Ariel sees his parents having these high powered jobs and still having the “perfect” homelife with home cooked meals. That image of perfection makes it seem, to him, like it is easy to have it all which I’m sure it’s not. As lovely a family picture as that is, it speaks to an ideal that Ariel may have in his head, standards that he feels he needs to meet.
There are a lot of angles coming to Ariel: family, school, self, all of which converge to create pressure and anxiety. These end up coming together to show how one thought can spiral into an almost anxiety attack. This quite felt particularly familiar to me and highlighted the intensity of Ariel’s situation:
The calculus test is Friday. If I fail, it will literally be impossible to get an A in the class. If I don’t get an A in the class, I won’t have a perfect record. If I don’t have a perfect record, I’ll be a less appealing applicant for Harvard. If I’m a less appealing applicant for Harvard, I won’t get in. If I don’t get in—
This continues to escalate in demonstrations from two educational figures in Ariel’s life, a guidance counselor (Hayes) and a calculus teacher (Eller):
Ms. Hayes lowers her voice. “Look, I’m not supposed to share this, but I know Pari Shah is also applying early action to Harvard. If they only accept one student from here like last year, well, it’s tight competition . You can’t slip up.”
“Wait here, Ariel.” I shift on my feet, feeling the eyes of my classmates. Mr. Eller pulls out a red pen, and I take a sharp breath. Is he torturing me on purpose ? Grading mine right here?
Ms. Hayes and Mr. Eller add to the hyper intense level of pressure that not only Ariel, but even the reader might be feeling at this point. Ms. Hayes: why, WHY would she say this to a student? There’s wanting your student to do well and then there’s imparting a piece of information that could cause real harm, especially if he’s already on the edge. And Mr. Eller, singling a student out who he knows is stressed out about a grade to stand at the front of the class and grading his important quiz. These two moments really stood out at straws that piled up on Ariel’s back in anticipation of the climax.
Ariel, of course, is not the only one susceptible to pressure or potential anxiety spirals. His friend, Sook, is a member of a band called the Dizzy Daisies.
“If I don’t pursue my dream now, I’ll lose it. I’ll go off to Dartmouth, and I’ll study and get a real job and pay bills and get married, and I’ll never prioritize my music again. I know I’m only in high school, but it’s like I’m already running out of time.”
Her parents, Dartmouth legacies if I remember correctly, want her to attend school while she wants to pursue a musical career. This passage highlighted a truly terrifying thought that felt incredibly true, like there could be no new possibilities once you’re an adult. The future is a frightening thing, plus the assumption that you’re supposed to have everything figured out for that future by the time you graduate (a ridiculously broad thought to have – could be fine for some but certainly not all).
Speaking of the future, Ariel’s present and the future of his sister, Rachel, is haunting similar in many instances:
When the food is ready, I call Rachel to the table. “Can we eat in here?” Rachel asks. “I want to keep working.”
Ariel knows what his habits are doing to him, what the studying is forcing him to sacrifice, but doesn’t see the same habits forming in Rachel, that she’s becoming just like him if not worse. I’m not saying that it is his responsibility to care for her, or for his contemporaries who would understand better than anyone what he’s going through (Pari, for example, being on his level and what not), but it was incredibly sad to notice throughout the book the hints that Rachel was developing similar patterns that would lead her into a way of life very much like Ariel’s.
I loved picking this book up because while it was rough seeing Ariel go through such intense, trying times, You Asked For Perfect was also an intensely enjoyable book. There were key moments that felt truly special, like when he was with his family, especially bonding with his little sister Rachel volunteering at the local animal shelter, or when he was spending time with his friends Sook and Masha, discussing their band the Dizzy Daisies.
The stress of studying, of trying to be perfect, of trying to be better and better and better until there’s nothing left to attain and even then trying to be better still…all of it ached. It’s such a relatable topic and being seen like that was one thing, but also having the balm of the interpersonal relationships was a perfect complement to the harshness that faced not just Ariel, but Pari and Isaac and every student that sees themselves in the students of Etta Fields High School.
At Etta Fields High School, becoming valedictorian is more complicated than perfect grades. We have weighted GPAs. We earn extra points for AP courses, a 5.0 instead of a 4.0 for an A . So the path to the top depends not only on the grades but also on signing up for the right classes.
There are some things I would have liked to see more of, such as time with Amir, his side of the story and such. I can admit, though, that considering this was Ariel’s story and how insular his world became because of the pressure that was upon him why this might have been a choice made from the author’s perspective.
Workaholics shouldn’t try to convince other people to work less.
It’s always comforting saying the familiar Hebrew words together. It lightens me in a way that’s hard to explain.
She’s a talented writer, but she also connects with everyone. And if you’re friends with someone, they’ll come to you with their stories first.
for Amir, acceptance isn’t the end goal— it’s just a step toward something greater.
We had a Great British Bake Off bake-a-thon, where for two weeks straight we binged the show and tried to copy their recipes.
Shrimp snacks are crunchy chips with delicious seasoning that taste like getting into Heaven.
It’s a best friend’s duty to call each other out about shitty behavior.
But I narrow my eyes at his Hufflepuff shirt. “I thought you were a Ravenclaw,” I say. “Observant.” He grins. “I’m a Ravenpuff, so I wear both.”
“Too many photos are dark, depressing. As if only serious subjects make good art. I think it’s harder to make someone happy than make them uncomfortable.”
His gaze is sincere and resolute. “Can I kiss you?” My throat catches, voice coming out rough. “Yeah, you can kiss me.”
“Jewish penicillin, the best food in existence. Yes, it is my mother’s matzo ball soup.”
I angle my chair so I can watch Amir. I’m suddenly anxious. What if he doesn’t like it? Obviously, we can’t date if he doesn’t like matzo ball soup.
“Of course she’s not okay,” Mom snaps. She then softens her voice . “It’s not physical, but that doesn’t mean it’s not harmful.”
“They make us think the grade is more important than the learning, and that’s messed up.
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About the Author
My debut novel, GIRL OUT OF WATER, is a summery coming-of-age story about a California surfer girl sent to landlocked Nebraska for the entire summer. It debuted in May 2017. You can order it from most book retailers and of course request it at your local library! My second novel, YOU ASKED FOR PERFECT, is about the effects of intense academic pressure on a teenage Valedictorian-to-be. It comes out March 2019, and you can add it on Goodreads here.
I have degrees in English and Advertising from the University of Georgia, and I have an MFA in Writing for Children from the New School. While I lived in NYC, I interned at Penguin and two different literary agencies. In addition to writing, I also freelance edit manuscripts and query letters. Please check out my services if you’re interested! I particularly love helping with those query letters!
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I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Quotes included are from an advanced reader copy and may not reflect the finalized copy.