Cover Past Perfect Life: Three little red monopoly houses in a row, each one progressively breaking more apart

About the Book

Title: Past Perfect Life
Published: 2019
Swoonworthy Scale: 3

Cover Story: Monopoly House Destruction
BFF Charm: Big Sister
Talky Talk: Lightweight
Bonus Factors: Wisconsin, Awesome Stepdads
Anti-Bonus Factor: Awful Grownups
Relationship Status: Onlooker

Cover Story: Monopoly House Destruction

Simple, effective, a touch boring, but, overall, inoffensive. Everything Ally knew about her home and family has been shattered, so while a little on the nose, the cover works.

The Deal:

As someone who moved a lot as a child, Ally Smith knows how precious it is to feel a part of a tight-knit, small-town community like Valley Falls. Her best friend, Marion, is one of the many Valley Falls Gleasons, and Ally’s crush is Marion’s cousin, Neil. She also cherishes her little home with her father, her only parent, and their myriad of weekly rituals (Taco Tuesday, Sunday Packers games with hamburgers ONLY during halftime, etc.). The biggest thing going on right now is that it’s senior year and Ally’s facing those pesky application questions that ask you to summarize your entire life in fifteen hundred words.

But once those applications are in, Ally breathes a sigh of relief. Everything is working out just as planned…until the Sheriff and an FBI agent show up at their door and arrest her dad. Then the truth that has been hidden from her for fifteen years finally comes out: Ally is actually Amanda Linsley, and her father kidnapped her from her mother when she was three. That mother that she thought died from cancer when she was a baby—yeah, she’s alive, and she’s been searching for Ally this entire time.

Suddenly Ally’s world is in shambles: the father she loves is in jail and the mother she’s never known is begging her to “come home”, as if that means anything right now. How do you pick up the pieces of a good life turned sour? Who are you when everything you thought you were…is false?

BFF Charm: Big Sister

BFF Charm Big Sister with Clarissa from Clarissa Explains It All's face

Ally before her family revelation isn’t the most complex protagonist. She’s shy around her crush, longtime friend Neil; she’s got a best friend who’s ride-or-die; and her problems about her future are pretty first-world (oh man, which great college should I go to?!). I’m sure we’d get along fine.

Ally after learning her life is a lie is suffering from shell shock. She’s been betrayed, and everything is so out of control that everything that comes after is just one more thing happening TO her. So it’s not the most conducive time to form a friendship. I felt more protective of her than anything. I wanted to whisk Ally away to a therapist ASAP so she could unload her feelings, because the more she bottled up, the more she retreated from the world. She had some good friends around her, but there’s only so much one seventeen-year-old can do for another in this situation.

Swoonworthy Scale: 3

Neil and Ally’s clumsy but sweet coming together is low down on everyone’s priority list (except Neil’s, probably), but it does provide some relief from the heaviness of the rest of the book. It’s on the “realistic” spectrum of YA romances, which means it’s ripe with awkwardness and more cute than swoony. Go ahead and picture a young Domhnall Gleeson as Neil (he’s described as tall, lanky, and the only red-head in the family). You’re welcome.

Talky Talk: Lightweight

If you’re looking for a contemporary on a weighty topic that gets dark but not TOO dark and that can be finished in an afternoon, then Past Perfect Life is the right book for you. It held my interest during the read, but it’s not one I’m going to think back on much after this review. The subject matter was interesting and is what drew me to the novel in the first place, but there wasn’t enough depth and breadth from the characters’ emotions to make me care about them in anything but a cursory kind of way. Ally felt stuck in a situation without a lot of options and her default behavior was to react, not act, and so it unfortunately led to what I felt was a very passive story.

Bonus Factor: Wisconsin

Close up of a map that says "Wisconsin"

When Ally is strong-armed into moving to Florida with her mother, she is overwhelmed by the outdoor malls, the eighty-degree December weather, and the Starbucks on every corner (we’ve got more than just those things, Ally, I promise.). She misses the seasons, the cheese curds (we do also have Culver’s now; you don’t have to miss your custard!), the Packers, and her small-town living. I have zero interest in living in the Midwest, but it doesn’t sound awful.

Bonus Factor: Awesome Stepdads

Close up of Coach Taylor from Friday Night Lights at a football game

First, gotta give a shout-out to Sheriff Gleason, who is the steadiest influence in Ally’s Wisconsin life as her world gets blown apart. He gives Ally a place to stay and tries to help her talk about her feelings (even though she won’t).

Then we’ve got Craig, who’s the real MVP of the book. He’s considerate of the complete weirdness surrounding this situation; is one of the only adults who thinks about Ally’s feelings and tries to honor her old rituals with her dad; and attempts to appeal to Ally’s mother when she acts a bit nutso. You’re a good egg, Craig.

Anti-Bonus Factor: Awful Grownups

Boxtrolls characters

I have a lot of sympathy for Paula, Ally’s mom. I really do. I’m not a mom, so I can’t even imagine what it’s like to lose a child. I know the experience colored her entire life for fifteen long, agonizing years. But putting all that aside, Paula’s general impulses and prickly personality make her THAT mom. The one who won’t be real with you even when you try and wants you to be her carbon copy image. Her actions are there to amp up the drama, and, combined with Ally’s PTSD, it made for a frustrating pressure-cooker of a situation.

Relationship Status: Onlooker

I heard about your hardships on the news, Book. I genuinely feel for you—this is an impossible situation—but aside from feeling abstract sympathy for your predicament, there’s not much more of a connection between us.

FTC Full Disclosure: I received my free review copy from Bloomsbury YA. This review was originally posted on Kirkus Reviews in exchange for monetary compensation, which did not affect or influence my opinions. Past Perfect Life is available now.

Stephanie (she/her) is an avid reader who moonlights at a college and calls Orlando home. Stephanie loves watching television, reading DIY blogs, planning awesome parties, Halloween decorating, and playing live-action escape games.