I’ve got to think that when she started writing this book Patricia Rice simply never decided exactly what kind of story she was creating – a contemporary funny with wacky-but-lovable characters, or something darker and more ambitious. Unfortunately, the result is a book that doesn’t succeed as either.
Cleo Alyssum, the leading female character (by no stretch of the imagination could she be termed a heroine), has a less than impressive résumé. Convicted felon, recovering crack addict, and mother who has (understandably) lost custody of her son are just a few of the lackluster qualifications she brings to the story. Add to all that the fact that she’s crabby, incredibly reclusive, and also has the unfortunate trait of always, always, always being right (something I personally think is usually caused by toxic levels of testosterone), and you’ve got yourself one unappealing girl.
Jared McCloud is another one of those favorite characters of mine – a Peter Pan type. The successful creator of a comic strip, he’s suffering from career burnout following an unhappy experience in writing for television. Hoping that a quiet location will help him overcome his writer’s block, Jared has come to the isolated South Carolina coastal town infested by Cleo to write the screenplay Hollywood is apparently begging for. Problem is, he’s got a work ethic not unlike that of George Costanza.
There’s an adorably cute first meeting involving the lovably wacky booby traps Cleo has set up to protect her privacy (I don’t imagine the townsfolk give her much trouble there). Then Jared totals his classic Jag when a snake planted in the car by one of the two neighbor children whom Cleo has befriended crawls up his leg. Hoping to protect the child by throwing both Jared and the cops off the scent, Cleo backs off her initial refusal of renting Jared the nearby cottage she owns. There – for a sizable chunk of change – he will spend the next few months writing his screenplay.
Or not. Distracted by Cleo and driven by lust, he keeps talking about how Cleo and he “connect.” Darned if I see it. Cleo is rude and abrasive, and her unalterable conviction that she-and-only-she is right puts Gene and Kismet, the two neighbor children, at continuing risk from the neglect of their crack addict mother. And, lest you think this isn’t a big issue, we’re talking serious stuff here – including sexual abuse of the young girl.
I’m sorry for anyone who has suffered the misfortunes that Cleo has experienced. But her skewed attitude towards authority figures and her very serious psychological issues just don’t jive with Rice’s light tone. Frankly, I just can’t be sympathetic to her attitude towards a teacher seeking to help the abused young girl – Cleo sees her as an interfering busybody. On behalf of teachers everywhere, I am offended.
And therein lies the big issue. This book touches on some very serious subjects, but not even remotely in the way that these subjects deserve. We’re given an unlikable main character with very destructive tendencies and are supposed to care simply because Rice wants us to. As for Jared, he’s a nice enough guy, but it’s easy to understand why he is the despair of his family.
At its best, Almost Perfect is an unhappy hybrid. At its worst, it’s a story of one sometimes despicable character and one little boy who both need to do a bit of growing up before they’re fit subjects for a book. In Rice’s hands, it’s obviously not going to happen.