Friday, July 19, 2013

Perfect Escape by Jennifer Brown

"This is what it's like living with a mentally ill person: everyone afraid to move.  Everyone afraid to speak.  You don't say certain words like suicide or crazy, and you do everything in your power to keep the good milliseconds lasting as long as they possibly can.  And you don't rush into anything at all, because rushing feels like courting disaster and you don't even know what that disaster is, because it's never the same disaster twice.  A ruined birthday?  A scene at a restaurant?  Police cars in the driveway in the middle of the night?  All of the above?  

And you don't ask for attention.  

And you get used to it when you don't get any. 

And you try really, really hard to forget that not getting attention hurts and that this person--this muttering, shadow-eyes, scabbed patient--was once your hero and best friend in the world.  Back when he was just a "weird kid."

And you try to remember that you still love him, even if some days, you can't exactly pinpoint why."  Page 8

Kendra's older brother, Grayson, has problems.  Not in any sense that most people can readily identify with either.  It's not merely Grayson's extreme OCD but a host of other anxiety issues that attest to his mental health and render his life eternally to the care of someone else.  

For the past few years Kendra has, consciously or not, made a choice about how she treated her brother.  She was never indifferent and she most certainly did care, but she was for the most part hands-off: the direct involvement she left to her parents, Grayson's doctors, and the institutional facilities he regularly checked into.  They have grown apart and due to some rash (i.e. bad) decision making on her part, facilitated by some serious trouble she has gotten herself into, we see how she plans to reestablish her past relationship with Grayson, maintain it, and even make it stronger.

Kendra is running away because she is in trouble at school.  It's not shallow, surface level trouble either, rather she'll probably be expelled, have her scholarships revoked, and not go to college kind of trouble.  Though not part of any grand premeditated plan, she manages to somehow accidentally--believably-- kidnap her brother and they head out to California, from Missouri.  Kendra excels at overreacting.  Here you would think the cliches come in, and here you'd be wrong.

They pickup Rena, a young woman not much older than Kendra, and her infant son.  It is almost immediately that we see that in a car with the leader of a school wide scandal, a single mother without a penny to her name (literally) and a mentally ill kid who is already miles away from his meds that Kendra is perhaps the least 'normal' person in the car.  

Kendra's discovery about so many things concerning Grayson and how they apply to their relationship was wonderful to watch unfold.  They physically get in a fight and she notices how much weight he's lost since he's been away at the most recent treatment facility.  She never looked at him long enough to see this; she had to physically start pushing him around to notice.  Rena points out, more than once, how genuinely nice he is and Kendra is appalled that she never came to see such an obvious truth.  Grayson is good looking and girls find him attractive and Kendra is outright offended at how she has had the opportunity to know him better than most anyone else ever would and yet she was never aware of these things.  She begins to marvel at how self-absorbed she has been in years past not wanting to get involved with Grayson and his problems.  She'd rather escape from all his drama and be normal.  And yet, on this impromptu, under-funded, not thought out beyond 'get in the car and drive' road trip she kinda treats him like shit… 

This, was a masterstroke by Brown.  Grayson has been coddled by his mother ever since the severity of his illness was uncovered even against the recommendations of his doctors that preach exposure therapy.  Kendra is stubborn, never more so than when she owns up to a mistake like taking someone such as Grayson half way across the country without his meds and not truly being capable of caring for him.  She's never directly mean to him, but she does revel in making Grayson uncomfortable, and everything makes Grayson uncomfortable: the car, a restaurant, a hospital, the motel… She's always joking but circumstance have made her jokes serious; Kendra has chosen to make Grayson confront all that makes him sick or suffer one of his epic meltdowns  knowing that there will be no one available for miles that can help him.  Needless to say, this makes for a ridiculous amount of tension on every page of this book.  

Which brings me to the third and greatest character in the book.  California; the cure; Zoe.  Kendra has it in her head that if everyone would stop coddling Grayson and make him deal with life that he would do so and be okay.  (The full extent of which she is wrong make some of the more intense sections of the book.)  She is going to fix her brother.  California, and Zoe her erstwhile best friend and past pseudo girl friend for Grayson represents a panacea for all his ails, or so she thinks.  Before she moved away, Zoe had a calming affect on Grayson that seemingly no other has had.  Rena too fits this mold in a very fleeting manner.  Reuniting with Zoe will be the culmination of all the trials she puts Grayson through in getting to California.  What Kendra is blind to--and never once stops to consider along the way--is that if she wants to be; if she actually applies herself, and works at this unique and extraordinarily difficult relationship, no one has a more calming and positive affect on Grayson's mind than she.  

The lack of overt affection between the two is a great strength of the novel.  Even when she wants to hug him, with full regard of how poorly Grayson responds to that kind of contact, she doesn't.  It's the kind of thing her mom would do that she feels has held him down.  Right or wrong, she's stubborn to a fault.  And her faults are colossal.  A lot of bad things happen in this book and yet Kendra never stopped pushing him.  

Their interaction is brilliant and it's interesting to see how similar they are.  They each feel they've have destroyed the other's life over the course of living their own.  And in no small degree they are both right.  The story, and the story of both their lives, is all about Grayson.  Even though it's told through Kendra's first person there is no distance or objectivity with Grayson.  No one hates that fact more than Grayson.  While his self-loathing is evident from the outset it is never explicitly communicated until a 'full-on freak out' as Kendra would say near the end.  He's almost always completely lucid (and it's usually some manifestation of his genius that pushes him into freak out mode) even if he has to always be counting something, touching something, rubbing something.  He can joke, and recall anecdotes from years past, he can sing along with the radio and bad pop music.  And after being forced into so many awkward situation by his sister he is surprised at the full extent of what he is capable of doing that he didn't know he was capable of doing.  

Kendra's self loathing is jealousy of all that has been taken away from her due to Grayson and a little bit of jealously masquerading as guilt for allowing them to grow apart in the first place. 

"Zoe was able to do something for Grayson that nobody else could: accept him for who he was.  Laugh and have fun with him.  Love him.  Make him relax.  She was able to do what I only wished I could.  She would never try to cure him.  She'd only try to make herself understand him better.  I was his sister.  I was his blood.  Why couldn't I do that?"  page 153

"...the feeling of resentment that I tried to stuff away because when someone can't even walk through his home normally, resenting him somehow feels mean.  Not to mention pointless.  Resenting Grayson wasn't going to cure him."  Page 9

Grayson is aware of how hard he's made his parents life, and Kendra's.  He feels like a hostage himself.  He's sick and not willfully so.  What he needs Kendra to see is that his pills, Zoe, nor this hell-bound road trip will cure him.  

They got in the car because of Kendra's problems; Grayson was an unfortunate casualty of Kendra's impulsive wrath.  They drove to California, 1,800 miles from home, because she thought she could outrun her troubles.  As strong as Kendra is, discovering the true nature of her problems and how to save herself from them took the help of the most broken person she knew; the one she'd been trying to ignore for years.  Understanding how, and why, is the reason you should read Perfect Escape.  


Maria said...

Was this the book that had the dialog of similar style to The Ocean at the End of the Lane?

Chad Hull said...

Nope, I was referencing A Stir of Bones with that comment. The dialogue here was more blunt, direct, and contemporary, but I mean all that in a good way.