What is a perfect book and how do you find it?
It’s been a year to the day since I finished the perfect book. A book so excellent, I haven’t read it again since. Haven’t even opened it. There’s a kind of magic I’m scared to disrupt, a veil I don’t want to move. So, before I open the book again to dive back in for a second time, these are my thoughts on the book, on perfection, and how a perfect book happens.
For the longest of time, I didn’t really think a perfect book existed. I’d read some really great books. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The last book in the Inheritance Cycle. Lord of the Rings (pick literally any of the three books). And on a smaller, less fantasy-driven scale, books like 1984, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and more recently Looking for Alaska. Lots of genres, many big-name books, lots of five-star reviews, and yet none of them were “perfect.” I didn’t think it was possible.
(Shameless plug for my book review page.)
I have, finally, discovered the perfect book, but at the same time it’s not about the book itself. Let me explain.
Most books have some type of flaw, whether that’s a pointless character, a part of the story line that falls flat, a disappointing ending. There’s always something just off. Maybe you get bored for one part, or another part rushes by too quickly. Maybe the romance is rushed, or maybe it needed some more romance.
I’ve found that the problems you find with a particular book, especially if they’re something small, are more an indication of what you’re searching for in your own life. Maybe you feel, on some level, eager for more action in your own daily walk or for more romantic encounters. Or you want to travel and see cool places. In some instances, maybe a book has too much action and you just want to read about normal-life people. This can influence the book you choose to read, sure, but it also messes with how you perceive a book. (And then some books are just bad in certain areas, and that’s okay, too. But I’m talking specifically about the books that are almost perfect.)
The Little Stranger
“I recall most vividly the house itself, which struck me as an absolute mansion
Sometimes, a perfect book for one person isn’t perfect for another. It all depends on where we’re coming from. Our background, our interests. For me, that perfect book is The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. I dare say I’ve written more about it than any other novel I’ve ever read. So, for one last time, indulge me. (And maybe check out the stuff I’ve written about it.)
These are the aspects of perfection. These are what makes a “perfect” book, and by extension a perfect book experience.
The best books are discovered by way of peculiar circumstances. The best books come flying out of the darkness and hit you on the head repeatedly until you finally open the front cover.
If you’ve read my movie review of Us, you remember me saying that I saw it before most people due to a pre-showing in my town. (Suck it.) It was a great movie in its own right, but the trailers before it are always the most fun. I saw one particular trailer, of course The Little Stranger, and immediately wrote down the name. To my joy, it turned out to be based on a book, so I bought the book and then didn’t touch it for a month. (I still haven’t watched the movie. You might say I lose focus easily.)
Weird thing about that. Every other movie trailer I saw was a movie that would be coming out within the month. TLS, however, had come out over a year earlier. The trailer showed up and then was gone. I saw two more movies that month and never once did TLS appear. Why did this trailer show up in the theaters and then vanish completely? Who knows. I can only be thankful it did.
Sound a bit like fate? Maybe. It also coincided with my Spring Break and my Senior Trip to Costa Rica, which is why I’d been actively searching for a book. I wanted something to take with me, something that could sear itself completely to the final memories of my high school experience. I suppose a 700+ page book fit that bill.
And perhaps there is a limit to the grieving that the human heart can do. As when one adds salt to a tumbler of water, there comes a point where simply no more will be absorbed.The Little Stranger
(Warning: This is the long -and important- section)
The best books take place in a complicated setting during a complicated time in your life. The best books fuse themselves to you and push you into a new chapter of life.
There’s something about a physical book that lends itself to perfection. When that physical book travels out of the country with me, and I spend sleepless nights in a hotel bed reading by the light of my phone, its a certain type of experience that isn’t easily forgotten. Maybe that’s why the book has become so important to me. It certainly helps.
Airplanes. Hotel rooms. The back of the van on the way home after a week in Costa Rica. This is how my experience began. I specifically saved the book until that trip and opened it for the first time in the Atlanta airport during our five (ish) hour layover. But the book, being quite long, took up more of my time than that week. It took up my Spring Break the following week and many, many nights afterwards.
This was the time in my life when I lived at my grandma’s house. It had been around five months since my grandpa passed, and over that time I had a schedule that tended to leave weary-eyed and lost in thought. I would get up around 6:30 to drive to school, work for a few hours after school, head to the gym, and then arrive at her house almost 11:00. After a shower and my “dinner,” which she usually made for me (thank God, because the most I can do is warm up ham and cheese), I would settle into a chair around midnight and watch Comedy Central for half an hour. Then repeat.
It was a weird time in my life. I felt closer to my grandma in the seven months I spent there than I had ever before. I also felt more tired than ever in my life. Waking up and driving forty-five minutes each morning was a constant struggle. (Driving while half-awake became a special and dangerous skill of mine.) So throwing in an excellent book to this not-so-comfortable schedule only made things more complicated.
It was around March when I started reading. I knew that when school ended, I’d be moving out of her house and back into my mom’s. That big house in the countryside had become a kind of safe place for me over those months. So when this book opened with a mansion, out in the countryside, where they were mourning the loss of a great and integral man, it felt too familiar.
The Little Stranger deals with grief, both for the passing of a person and for a way of life that has passed forever. It has complicated relationships, a man who is pushed to his breaking point day-by-day. It’s a beautiful piece of writing, flowering at times and intensely gritty at others. It was the perfect book for the perfect moment in my life.
As I read it -as the days crept on and I spent countless nights with only five hours of sleep thanks to its entrancing nature- I moved closer and closer to my final weeks there. When I had finished the book, towards the end of April, I felt more prepared for that reality. For the different and changed life ahead. For college, for growing up, for change. And it’s difficult to explain how I reached that point. The book doesn’t necessarily fixate on any of those, and yet it touches each one just enough.
We see what a punishing business it is, simplybeing alive.The Little Stranger
The idea of change. The fear of it and the reality. The question had shifted, or my view of it had at least. The book didn’t ask about changing circumstances. It asked how would I?
Quality of the Book/Perfect Ending
The best books are exactly that… the best.
My favorite part of this experience was when I emailed the author, Sarah Waters, and just kind of hoped that she’d answer a few of my questions. I didn’t really expect an answer from a best-selling author, but it doesn’t hurt to try, right? She actually did respond, very thoughtfully, and it was an excellent cap to an excellent book.
To borrow from my book review:
Sarah Waters has, without a doubt, concocted a book with something for everyone. There is medical jargon and flowering description; there is romance and passion; there is social commentary and a deeper meaning; it has intense mystery and creeping suspense; and then there is the ending, a perfectly-timed twist that leaves you wondering if it even was a twist in the first place.
The book itself is as close to perfect as you can get. The right length for the right story with the right amount of details and mystery. But the circumstances around it and around me are what have maintained it as such as perfect piece of literature.
So now I go back to reading it, looking forward to the ending, which is the best I’ve ever read. I won’t spoil it for you, because I want you to experience it for yourself. But it really is great. Instead I’ll leave you with a quote I associate with this book and that I can’t find any credible sources for except for Google.