Thursday, February 3, 2011
Review: Perfect Score
Perfect Score by Susan Roebuck
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
When Alex and Sam first meet, Alex is a bored rich brat waiting in his uncle’s fancy car, and Sam is a ragged street kid collecting cardboard. Even during this first scene, their characterization starts, in an amazingly subtle and yet unmistakable way: Alex is a dreamer who waits passively for what life dishes out for him, shaping what plays before his eyes until it meets his own perception and the way he wants his world to be. Sam is a doer, going about an impossible task like pulling a cart that is heavier than he simply because it’s a thing that needs to be done, radiating a stubborn determination to make his world accomodate his needs, if not this way, then another. What amazed me most was how I, the reader, learned these facts about the boys. All the information was conveyed in the tone of Alex’s voice, his thoughts and the way he perceived Sam – and I was hooked from the start. The narrative was “showing, not telling” to perfection, and not only during the first paragraph, but kept up through the entire book. It continued in the chapter-wise change of perspective. Alex, formally educated and articulate, tells his parts from his first person point of view. Sam’s parts are narrow third person, which fits him since Sam is almost barred from normal social interactions by his speaking and writing disability, and communicates mostly through his actions.
After their first encounter, Sam’s and Alex’s ways part for several years. Although they move in entirely different circles, there is still a connection. Sam, who has long forgotten about the rich boy, unwittingly works for Alex’s mother and stepfather and also butts heads several times with Alex’s uncle Timothy Finch. In contrast, Sam stars in Alex’s imagination for years, first as Alex’s invisible friend and later as his dream lover, although Alex doesn’t know the first thing about Sam and is sure he won’t never meet him again. Still, when Alex learns that Sam is right there at his stepfather’s ranch, he spares no effort to leave an impression with the shy, taciturn laborer. I kept turning pages, impatient for them to get back together, always kept on the edge by the fact that any little twist of fate could bring them further apart. When they finally meet again, it is pure coincidence and yet inevitable since Sam’s hut on the ranch of Alex’s stepfather is the place where their own decisions have taken them, although Uncle Tim with his deeds of darkness unconsciously and certainly unintentionally pushed them along.
The characters are incredibly complex; I’ve hardly ever come across two so flawed and tortured heroes. Alex in particular isn’t easy to take to. For a big portion of the book, I alternately pitied him or held him in contempt. He’s the very example of the “poor rich boy”, grown up with all his worldly needs met and still so loveless and lonely that he must resort to an invisible friend for company. Cowering before his uncle, afraid almost of his own shadow, Alex nevertheless cheats his way around the business class his uncle wants him to take, studying music instead, since all he ever wanted to be is a musician. Selfish to a fault, gullible, sly and weak before his uncle’s oppressive personality, Alex still goes about his goal secretively, almost casually becoming a singer/songwriter superstar in the process. And Alex never wavers in his love for Sam. It’s beautiful to see how after a long and painful process of growing up he finally finds, with Sam’s help, the inner and outer strength to take charge of his own life.
Sam, on the other hand, is an incredible person I fell in love with on the spot. Running away from an abusive stepfather at age seven, he was used to fighting for his life every day. Forced to fend for himself with hard bodily work since he was twelve, Sam gathered enormous knowledge about chemistry, pharmacy, herb medicine, farming, animal husbandry almost in passing, making him a self-taught practical universal genius. But he stutters so badly that he can barely communicate, and he is dyslexic, both facts making him a retard in the eyes of his contemporaries. Thus he is denied approval and even reward for his achievements, which makes him distrustful against almost everybody. He trusts and loves only his physically handicapped sister, who he has saved from a state-owned asylum and put into a private nursing home which he pays for all on his own. In turn, his sister loves him back unconditionally and trusts him blindly. Alex is the only person who manages to get behind Sam’s thick walls; it’s Alex’s music which first melts Sam’s heart, and later Alex’s brash refusal to accept Sam’s rejection, Alex’s blind, mad love for him. Slowly, gradually Sam comes to care for Alex and to trust him, to a point where he finally manages to accept Alex’s help and to lean on him. Those two were fated to be together against all odds, those two dysfunctional men who compliment each other in a way that neither makes sense alone.
But not only the main characters, also the secondary cast were distinguishable, well-elaborated characters. Even Alex’s uncle Tim, a psychopath if there ever was one, was given character traits and motivations which, although they didn’t exculpate him, at least made his actions understandable. And I totally loved Sam’s sister Amy, who is as stubborn and determined as her brother at three times the sass.
Perfect Score isn’t an easy read. It’s set during a hard time, in the late 1960′s, and people’s lives were hard back then. The narrative voices, either Alex’s or Sam’s, make no big deal of the hardships, though. Things are as they are. People get drunk and kill other people, children get abused or become disabled due to poverty and poor healt care. The poor die early, the strong feed off the weak, and money makes everything possible. The intensity comes with the factual tone of voice, and the realism brought me right in the middle of Silver Creek, anywhere. Hints and references at the time, like musicians, clothes, hairstyles, mannerisms of speech further added to the timely feeling. I was there with them, on the pastures and in the cow barns, in the dingy bars and smoke-filled clubs. I suffered with both Sam and Alex through their darkest hours and rose with them to their bright, shining future.
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