Published by Farrar Straus and Giroux on February 28th 2017
Genres: Young Adult, Contemporary
Source: The Publisher
My content rating: YA (A bit more than kissing is implied, but not really shown, Some swearing and mature subjects)
The story of a teen girl's struggle with Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder and how love helps her on the road to recovery.
Sixteen-year-old Pea looks normal, but she has a secret: she has Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID). It is like having a monster inside of her, one that not only dictates what she can eat, but also causes anxiety, depression, and thoughts that she doesn’t want to have. When she falls crazy-mad in love with Ben, she hides her disorder from him, pretending that she’s fine. At first, everything really does feel like it’s getting better with him around, so she stops taking her anxiety and depression medication. And that's when the monster really takes over her life. Just as everything seems lost and hopeless, Pea finds in her family, and in Ben, the support and strength she needs to learn that her eating disorder doesn’t have to control her.
Sad Perfect sheds light on a very little-known condition: ARFID, which is Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder. I actually have a friend whose son has this disorder, and reading this book gave me a much deeper understanding of why her little boy is not just a “picky eater.” For that, I am very thankful. Unfortunately, there were some elements of this book that I found very problematic, and they keep me from being able to recommend it. Read on for further explanation.
What Fed My Addiction:
- Second person narration. This book is told in a very unusual style—via second person narration. This means it’s told as though you are the main character. The first sentence of the book is “You float.” (Don’t worry, it makes sense once you get a bit of context). I wasn’t sure at first how I would feel about this narrative style, but I was intrigued, and I enjoyed it a lot more than I was expecting to. There were a few oddities that went along with this. For instance, you never learn the main character’s (your) name. It’s never revealed—I assume to allow you to insert your own identity into the reading. This felt a bit odd to me, but overall I actually found the oddity of the second person narration interesting and endearing.
- ARFID. Like I said in my intro, this book gave me a much deeper understanding of how a person with ARFID struggles with eating. The main character (we’ll call her Pea—the nickname her father calls her by and the only name she’s given) doesn’t enjoy food. We discover that she actually has less taste buds than the average person, so many foods are tasteless to her. She also can’t handle the feel of many foods in her mouth. I recently tried eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich too soon after using a numbing rinse at the dentist (my mouth was no longer numb, but my taste buds apparently were!) and I can tell you that the experience of chewing a tasteless lump of squishy food was unpleasant. I can’t imagine what it would be like if that was my experience with food most of the time!
- Ben. Ben is sweet and caring and just about perfect. This could be bothersome to some people (too perfect?), but I kind of loved him and was glad for this positive presence in Pea’s otherwise bleak life.
What Left Me Hungry for More:
- The Monster. Pea refers to the thoughts and feelings she has around food and the resulting anxiety and depression as “the Monster.” She thinks and talks constantly about the Monster and the hold it has over her. I was okay with this personification of her illness, but then at the end of the book Pea suddenly comes to the realization that the Monster isn’t real. Huh? I was more than a little confused by this. Of course the Monster isn’t real—he’s a metaphor for the way that the illness controls her. Why would she seem surprised to realize that there is no actual Monster?
- Mean-spirited or unreliable narrator? Because of Pea’s issues, she tends to be a bit of an unreliable narrator. Her view of the world is skewed and the Monster often makes her unpleasant and downright mean. I tried to remember that Pea isn’t necessarily promoting the author’s ideas, but sometimes I had a hard time with this, and Pea never seems to really change any of her viewpoints or realize that her thinking is wrong. I was especially bothered by this when we see Pea’s thoughts and feelings about other girls—she seems to think that being “girly” is a crime and that any girl with a lot of Instagram followers is outright evil and deserves her hatred and judgment. There is one point late in the book where she almost acknowledges to herself that this might not be a healthy attitude, but the acknowledgment is so miniscule that you could easily miss it, and I didn’t really see any growth after the realization. Pea also sometimes thinks mean thoughts about the girls in her eating disorder group (some that target their specific symptoms) and seems to imply most of the time that her issue is actually way worse than theirs (which seems rather hypocritical). I get wanting people to understand that ARFID is serious, but the way that she goes about expressing that seems very wrong to me at times.
- Focus on the romance. I felt like a lot of the book focused on the romance more than it focused on Pea’s recovery. And the romance wasn’t incredibly well-developed, especially at the beginning (there just wasn’t a lot of true interaction between them that was shown—we were told that they enjoyed their first date together and made each other laugh, but we didn’t get to see much if any of that supposed banter), so it fell a little flat for me. I wish we’d seen more of Pea’s actual growth and therapy in the hospital, but we got only drama. Which brings me to my next issue …
- Very negative representation of psychiatric facilities. At one point, Pea is sent to an inpatient psychiatric facility View Spoiler »after she turns to cutting herself and they believe that she might be suicidal. « Hide Spoiler The way this facility is portrayed is really horrible. Pea repeatedly refers to it as a “crazy house” and she demonizes the people who work there (all but one staff member who breaks a rule to do something nice from her, so she holds him up on a pedestal). Again, Pea is an unreliable narrator, so I would have maybe been okay with this if Pea had learned that the doctors were actually trying to help her and that psychiatric facilities are not, in fact, evil. Instead, things get progressively worse, and it all goes down in a way that just made me plain angry—at Pea. If you want to know more, feel free to check out the slightly ranty spoiler. View Spoiler »Pea spent SO much time insisting that she didn’t really belong there (despite the fact that she had cut herself and insisted that she might not want to live if the Monster wouldn’t go away) that she didn’t really seem to gain anything from her therapy. Then, after being in the hospital for four days and learning that she would have to stay for four more (a HUGE travesty—couldn’t they see that she was fine?), she turned her room upside down and then jumped a kid who had stolen a letter from her and scratched his face all up. They put her into a sort of solitary confinement room for the night—and when she was given some chance to take some responsibility for her actions, she just kept yelling about how they were being so unfair and how the kid had deserved her behavior since he stole her letter and made her mad. When this didn’t get the reaction she was hoping for, she got madder and screamed all night long. Her parents showed up the next morning and rushed her out of the “horrible” place that had mistreated her so, but no mention was ever made of the fact that maybe, just maybe, her actions actually did show that she was not completely stable and she might have caused some of the issues herself. I just felt like the hospital staff were so villainized (don’t get me wrong, they didn’t all handle everything perfectly) and no responsibility was put on Pea at all. Everyone apologized for making her go to the hospital as if they had done her a horrible disservice—what kind of message does this give to a teen who might need this type of help? I just couldn’t get behind this message at all. « Hide Spoiler
In the end, this book helped me understand a disorder that doesn’t get much attention (and I applaud Elliott for that), but unfortunately I didn’t feel like it did so in an entirely positive manner. I would highly recommend that anyone who puts this book into the hands of a teen makes sure that they also discuss the fact that it doesn’t necessarily accurately reflect mental health facilities (at least, certainly, not all of them). I know that this book was based, in part, on the author’s daughter’s experiences, so maybe her daughter had a bad experience in a psychiatric hospital? If that’s the case, I’m certainly sympathetic, but I still think that the book gives a dangerous message about psychiatric care. In the end, my frustrations with Sad Perfect, unfortunately outweighed the positives and I gave it 2/5 stars.
***Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. No other compensation was given and all opinions are my own.***
About the Author
Stephanie Elliot is the author of the young adult novel Sad Perfect (Margaret Ferguson Books/FSG, Winter, 2017), which was inspired by her own daughter’s journey with ARFID, Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder. She has written for a variety of websites and magazines and has been a passionate advocate of other authors by promoting their books on the Internet for years. She has been, or still is, all of the following: a book reviewer, an anonymous parenting columnist, a mommy blogger, an editor, a professional napper, a reformed Diet Coke drinker, a gecko breeder and the author of three self-published novels.
A Florida native, Stephanie has lived near Chicago and Philadelphia and currently calls Scottsdale, Arizona home. She graduated from Northern Illinois University, where she received her Bachelor of Arts in Journalism. Stephanie and her husband Scott have three children: AJ, McKaelen and Luke. They are all her favorites.
I wrote SAD PERFECT when my daughter was going through a 20-week intensive outpatient therapy program for her eating disorder ARFID, Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder. This disorder greatly affected every member in our family and caused my daughter to have extreme anxiety and depression. It is our hope that if you are struggling with an eating disorder, anxiety, or depression, that you know you are not alone, that there is help out there, that all you need to do is ask. We have set up a website for those who think they might have ARFID, and my daughter has a YouTube channel where she talks openly about her experience. While SAD PERFECT is fiction, all of the ARFID pieces in the novel are true. Please visit my website, stephanieelliot.com or stephanieelliot.wixsite.