Goodbye Perfect by Sara Barnard
Whenever there is a story in the news in which a teacher runs off with a teenage pupil, one of the things I always wonder is what the pupil's friends think about it. Did they know? Were they supportive? Or are they as horrified as everyone else? And if so, is that because they realise their friend has been groomed, or are just appalled to find out they fancy their teacher?
This is why I picked up Sara Barnard's novel Goodbye Perfect. It's about Eden, a 16-year-old girl just about to sit her GCSEs, whose best friend Bonnie texts her during the night to say she's running away with her boyfriend Jack - a boyfriend Eden has never met and rather suspects Bonnie might have made up. But in the morning, the police come knocking on Eden's door. Not only is Jack real, but Eden has met him after all - only she knows him as Mr Cohn, one of her teachers.
What follows is a story of conflicting loyalties. Sworn to secrecy and assured by Bonnie that she and Jack are happy and in love, Eden wants to be supportive - but the more she learns about Mr Cohn, the more she starts to realise that Bonnie, still underage at 15, might not be as safe as she thinks. Should she admit to the police that she lied about not knowing Bonnie's whereabouts - potentially ruining their friendship? Or should she keep her promise to her best and oldest friend?
Goodbye Perfect is a young adult novel and I think there are elements of it which adults and teenagers might read a little differently. As an adult, I was repeatedly frustrated by the choices that Eden makes, while I think readers of Eden's age might be a little more understanding in this regard. That said, Eden is still a likeable character regardless and I felt a good deal of sympathy for her despite her mistakes. Adopted at the age of nine with her little sister Daisy after suffering appalling neglect, she loves her adoptive parents but still isn't entirely sure of her place in the family, and her relationship with her adoptive sister Valerie (now 22 and in her final year at university) is an awkward one. Moreover, her biological father is Brazilian and she's mixed race, and although this is only once or twice mentioned, it's clear that this too makes her conscious of being different. These elements of the story are skillfully and plausibly written, and Eden's motives and thought processes feel credible and real.
The relationship - although that should really be quotation marks - between Bonnie and Mr Cohn is also handled in a way that's sensitive and appropriate for the book's target audience. No reader is likely to come away from this book believing that what Bonnie has done is in any way romantic, but at the same time there's no preaching and the message that Bonnie has effectively been groomed is clear but never heavy-handed. As Eden learns more about Mr Cohn, she starts to come to her own conclusions and I would like to think that most teenage readers would do the same.
One of the most powerful elements of Goodbye Perfect for me was actually the degree to which both Eden and Bonnie are frustrated at being pigeon-holed by the people around them - including each other. Eden comes from the care system, struggles academically and has a reputation for being disruptive at school, and yet what she really dreams of is a career in gardening and life of quiet stability somewhere in the country with her kind, gentle, birdwatching boyfriend Connor - with whom she has a solid, mature and genuinely touching relationship (it's possibly the only contemporary teenage romance I've ever read about that I could honestly see enduring into adulthood). Bonnie, on the other hand, is a gifted student and a talented musician who has never been in trouble and puts every last ounce of energy into revising for her exams - but despite being 'the sensible one' and 'the high-achiever', she's far less pragmatic than Eden, easily blinded by infatuation, and feels crushed by the pressure of expectation when it comes to school. Eden can't believe that steady, ambitious Bonnie has abandoned her GCSEs to run away with a man who's pushing 30, while Bonnie can't believe that wild-child Eden is telling her to be more sensible.
I felt that perhaps the climax of this book was slightly rushed (although the build-up to it certainly kept me turning the pages). A couple of the characters seemed a little too good to be true, and I also find it lazy and irritating whenever an author has their narrator establishing a character by saying 'Here are some things you should know about...' and then listing some quirky facts about them - for some reason, I seem to see more of this in YA fiction than I do in books for adults, and I think teenagers deserve better than this. Finally, I would also have liked to find out a little bit more about Mr Cohn, who is mostly off-stage, as it were. But overall this was a really enjoyable, quick and easy read with a lot of warmth to it - I finished it in two sittings.
You can buy Goodbye Perfect here in paperback or here for Kindle.