“You know, people do have more difficult problems. But your anxieties are still real. They still count, yeah?”
This was a very insightful, relatable, and romantic YA novel. It brings about several different themes that are very relevant for youths in this day and age, especially in the American school system, regarding pressure and perfectionism. You Asked For Perfect centers on high school senior Ariel, who has spent the better part of his life perfecting his future college resume: first chair violinist, dedicated volunteer, active synagogue congregant, and expected valedictorian. After he fails one calculus quiz, he enlists Amir as a tutor and discovers that while he doesn’t like calculus, he likes Amir. But Ariel is about to learn that there’s only so much pressure one person can take. I often think that adults don’t realize how much pressure there is for students, especially the AP students seen in You Asked For Perfect, to uphold a certain standard of perfection – perfect grades, perfect test scores, perfect college, perfect life. But as any adult or student can tell you, life rarely works out the way they say it will. So we might as well be messy while we can.
You Asked For Perfect resonated with me on several different levels, given that I am a lifelong perfectionist and currently what I like to call a detoxing perfectionist. I didn’t experience the same kind of pressure that Ariel experienced at the hands of his school system, where everything is a competition and the adults who are supposed to be there to help just shame you for not constantly being perfect, but I have been held hostage by my own impossible standards of perfection for most of my life (you can read more about that over on my mental health blog, It’s Not That Deep). As much as there are many school systems that do set impossibly high standards for students to live up to, mainly in private schools and in AP programs, I like to believe that many children were perfectionists before school got involved. I’m not a fan of entirely blaming society for making kids anxious and pressuring them to be perfect. That certainly exists, but it’s the people who feel the compulsion to meet those standards that most probably also have another set of personal standards they have to meet in their head. Perfectionists are at the mercy of the voices in our heads, and the pressure of society only makes that worse – not vice versa.
I very much related to Ariel’s inner struggle to be perfect and appear perfect, especially since a lot of it ties in with other anxieties associated with youth that aren’t entirely normalized: for example, comparing yourself to other students. That kid got a good grade, why can’t I get a good grade? What’s wrong with me? That person seems to manage with the same workload I have, why can’t I manage? These thoughts are toxic and repressed, and we don’t talk about them enough – especially not as teenagers. We internalize the need to be perfect because we think it will pay off later. But just as I learned, no one in adulthood is going to stop and commend you for the time you’ve spent trying to make everything perfect. In real life, no one cares. Adults aren’t held to the same impossibly high standards that children are held to, and in my opinion most adults don’t realize the extent to which perfectionist children internalize these thoughts and urges until it’s too late. But despite relating to Ariel’s struggle on one hand, on the other I was removed enough from those struggles myself to have a different perspective. Ariel was taking on too much, but he wasn’t old enough or wise enough to understand that yet.
Another thing to commend about You Asked For Perfect is its diversity. Not only are most of the characters Jewish or Muslim, but Ariel is also a proud bisexual boy who has a romance that doesn’t end tragically or inevitably. Ariel and Amir are officially one of my all-time favorite LGBT couples in all of YA. Their romance is very well written – their flirting and sexual tension was adorable and I often lost myself while reading their interactions. In other words, Ariel and Amir = SWOON. Their families were also surprisingly open and supportive of their sons dating each other which was also amazing to see? The author was definitely subverting the typical conservative reactions that most Muslims and other religions have in regard to LGBT people, so that was wonderful.
A few things I took issue with in this book: I expected a better conclusion to Ariel’s struggles with being the perfect student. It seems to me that he kind of just started to realize he doesn’t have the time or energy to be stressed over everything and decides to drop a class, which would therefore take him out of the running for valedictorian. I was honestly expecting some full-fledged breakdown to happen where the pressure began to compromise his physical and emotional strength (because, y’know, that happens in real-life, I can attest). You Asked For Perfect also felt way too short and therefore didn’t explore the relevant issues it brings up as much as I would have liked. I would have liked some between-the-lines acknowledgement of the pressure that is put on AP students in American schools, and perhaps what needs to change going forward to ensure better mental health for teenagers. The last half of the book didn’t really seem to focus on much at all besides Ariel and Amir’s relationship and the lives of their friends, which felt like a lackluster conclusion to a story with such important themes explored more in the beginning. You Asked For Perfect is not perfect, but it did bring us a new couple for me to ship and gush over. Please don’t remind me that they aren’t real. 3.5/5 stars.