What would you have been willing to give for completely anonymous, personalized relationship advice in high school? Probably a lot more than 10 dollars, but that’s all Darcy Phillips, the mastermind behind locker 89 in Sophie Gonzales’s conventional yet refreshingly original teen romance “Perfect on Paper,” charges for her services. Slip your payment, contact information and a letter with an explanation of your problem into the aforementioned locker, and in return, Darcy will send you personalized love advice, guaranteed to work or your money back.
The beauty of Darcy’s service lies in its anonymity, which Darcy has managed to maintain for the last two and a half years without a hitch. But when it-boy Alexander Brougham (known throughout the book as Brougham) catches her in the act and discovers her identity as the girl behind locker 89, Darcy is forced to become his personal dating coach for fear he might expose her secret. If he did, her best friend and long-time crush, Brooke, would discover that Darcy abused the locker’s power to do something horrible to her last year. Despite initially being blackmailed into their partnership, the more time Darcy spends with Brougham, the more she’s forced to confront the fact that love and relationships are more complicated than she’d like to believe, and sometimes you can’t rely on a generic formula for a genuine connection.
“Perfect on Paper” is, by all accounts, a solid YA romance. It has characters you can root for, a unique and engaging voice and more than its fair share of fun, tropey twists. Gonzales has been open in the past about how she tries to write stories about Queer people without trying to make any sort of greater point about the Queer experience. She holds to this sentiment with “Perfect on Paper” by crafting a romance between Darcy and Brougham that feels as un-self-consciously presented as any non-Queer relationship in a non-Queer book. The story doesn’t try to stray from other books in its genre to make a point but rather gives Queer readers the same casual representation that cishet people get in every other book on the market. Yet the thing that sets this book apart from the rest of its genre is not the inclusion of Queer people at all, but its immense emotional maturity and powerful discussions of biphobia.
Gonzales wrote “Perfect on Paper” as a response to criticism of her last work, “Only Mostly Devastated,” concerning a bisexual character ending up in a romantic relationship with a member of the opposite sex; some critics claimed it wasn’t real Queer representation. While it remains important to recognize the many other pressing issues the Queer community faces (such as transphobia, anti-LGBTQ+ laws and violence against BIPOC), the demonstrated biphobia in these comments is worthy of our attention too. As a result, “Perfect on Paper” features a male/female relationship while making it clear to readers that it is still a Queer relationship — even if she’s dating a man, Darcy herself is still Queer.
Gonzales’s portrayal of biphobia is subtle yet moving and unfolds throughout the novel, with depictions ranging from a discussion with Darcy’s father about how he treats the people she brings home differently depending on their gender, to a conversation with Brooke, a lesbian, who claims that if Darcy dated Brougham she would be in a straight relationship. Biphobia is therefore given a nuance in “Perfect on Paper” that it is not usually given in other Queer and straight romance novels. Although Darcy initially shuts Brooke down — “Well, it wouldn’t be a het relationship, would it? … Because I’m not straight.” — the sentiment sticks with her. As Darcy begins to fall for Brougham, she pushes back against these feelings, scared that being with a boy will somehow make her less Queer. Eventually she brings up these fears at a meeting with her school’s Queer and Questioning Club when she says, “Maybe I don’t know what it’s like to be gay or a lesbian, but I do know some people will never understand what it’s like to be queer and to blush every time you join in on a conversation about it because you feel like you’re treading on people’s toes, because when they say ‘queer’ they don’t mean you.”
In response to this powerfully written conversation, the other characters in the club reaffirm Darcy’s place in the Queer community, regardless of who she chooses to date. While the acceptance Darcy receives at the end of the novel unfortunately may not be the reality for many Queer people, the biphobia Darcy experiences is entirely reminiscent of biphobia in real life, and Gonzales does a beautiful job of portraying and subsequently countering these stereotypes through her characters.
Gonzales’s book doesn’t shy away from these conversations simply because it’s written for a younger audience. Rather, it acknowledges the fact that young Queer teenagers like Darcy might have experiences like hers and relate to her character’s journey with identity. This book would be enjoyed by anyone who frequents the genre, but it will be especially appreciated by young Queer kids, and even more so by those who identify as bisexual, pansexual or any other identity that is often erased in Queer conversations.
Daily Arts Contributor Camille Nagy can be reached at email@example.com.