bookish review

Review: Perfect on Paper, Sophie Gonzales

Perfect on Paper by Sophie Gonzales
eARC received from NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for review
304 pages, YA contemporary romance

In Sophie Gonzales’ Perfect on Paper, Leah on the Offbeat meets To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before: a bisexual girl who gives anonymous love advice to her classmates is hired by the hot guy to help him get his ex back

Her advice, spot on. Her love life, way off.

Darcy Phillips:
• Can give you the solution to any of your relationship woes—for a fee.
• Uses her power for good. Most of the time.
• Really cannot stand Alexander Brougham.
• Has maybe not the best judgement when it comes to her best friend, Brooke…who is in love with someone else.
• Does not appreciate being blackmailed.

However, when Brougham catches her in the act of collecting letters from locker 89—out of which she’s been running her questionably legal, anonymous relationship advice service—that’s exactly what happens. In exchange for keeping her secret, Darcy begrudgingly agrees to become his personal dating coach—at a generous hourly rate, at least. The goal? To help him win his ex-girlfriend back.

Darcy has a good reason to keep her identity secret. If word gets out that she’s behind the locker, some things she’s not proud of will come to light, and there’s a good chance Brooke will never speak to her again.

Okay, so all she has to do is help an entitled, bratty, (annoyingly hot) guy win over a girl who’s already fallen for him once? What could go wrong?

Content warning: Casual biphobia, in the form of microaggressions you’ve likely heard before if you’re bi/pan: straight-passing privilege; “turning” straight or gay depending on the gender of your partner; it’s weird for you to have a crush on [a] when you usually prefer [b]; bi promiscuity; character questioning if they will still be considered queer, and accepted in queer spaces, if they date someone of a different gender. Sophie Gonzales wrote on Goodreads that this book was written in response to pushback from a previous novel in which a bi side character ends up in a relationship with a straight character.

To be clear, Gonzales puts biphobia on blast in this book, addressing these (and other) issues with nuance and care! But it’s good to know going in.

There’s also drug and alcohol use, the aftereffects of an angry and messy divorce on the couple’s children, and a toxic and volatile relationship between another character’s parents that involves cheating and emotional manipulation/abandonment.

Relationships are messy and complicated. Darcy Phillips knows this firsthand: the daughter of divorced and busy parents who struggle to make quality time for their kids, she took her hobby of studying relationships and relationship advice and turned it into an afterschool business during her freshman year. By junior year locker 89 has taken on a life of its own.

The concept is simple. Students drop a letter, their email address, and ten dollars into the locker. Darcy collects letters after the end of the school day and replies by email with relationship advice tailored to each situation. Most chapters start with a letter and locker 89’s response, or a bit of character analysis, to show that Darcy’s advice is usually insightful and well-reasoned.

After two years of keeping her identity secret, Darcy is finally caught in the act of checking the locker by Alexander Brougham, a senior student who offers to pay Darcy to help him fix the issues that caused his breakup. The stakes of being discovered are high: Darcy once used the locker to interfere in her best friend – and current crush – Brooke’s love life… she’s also never been in a relationship herself. If the truth ever comes out she’ll be down a best friend and her side hustle.

Darcy is a relatable and flawed lead who has it all figured out until she doesn’t. It’s easy to look at someone else’s relationship from a distance; harder to step back and take an unbiased look at yourself. As a reader you feel all of Darcy’s growing pains alongside her, cheer on her growth, and want her to do better when she stumbles.

Throughout the novel there’s a focus on action versus intent: how otherwise good people sometimes do or say bad and hurtful things, and our loved ones are in a unique position to deal the most damage. Darcy hurts some of the people closest to her and is hurt in turn. Knowing a lot about relationships in theory helps Darcy in some ways but hinders her growth in others. It isn’t until the whole scheme blows up – spectacularly – in her face that Darcy realizes the depths of her own damage and begins to own her actions and hold others accountable for theirs.

The novel’s supporting cast is fully-realized and vibrant. Darcy’s sister, Ainsley, who is both sibling and stand-in parent, co-conspirator, and the one rock-solid relationship in Darcy’s life. Brooke, Darcy’s best friend, and the star of Darcy’s romantic daydreams… which could maybe become reality if Darcy could work up the nerve to say something. Brougham, who makes a poor first impression, but turns out to be not at all who Darcy first assumed. Members of the school’s Queer & Questioning club, friends from school, and Darcy and Broughum’s parents round out the cast.

The central romance is obvious from the marketing, so I’ll talk about it a little here, without spoiling the particulars. Full disclosure: I’m bi myself, and to be honest I read way fewer books with bi protagonists than I’d like, because there are a lot of misconceptions and stereotypes that I don’t care to read about.

I could tell from the beginning that this book would be different. The central message – that the identity of your partner doesn’t erase your bisexual identity – is explored in an affirming way that doesn’t gloss over obstacles and prejudices, but even better, the relationship doesn’t get lost in the message. Darcy and Brougham have great chemistry and as a reader you really get a sense for why they get along, their shared interests and experiences, and how they challenge each other.

I can’t recommend Perfect on Paper enough – it’s sweet, funny, heartbreaking, has a great cast and plot, the central romance is well done, and the novel addresses biphobia in a critical but constructive way. This is the kind of rep I wish had been available when I was in high school and struggling, so I’m thrilled to see stories like this out in the world!

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