Planning Perfect by Haley Neil delivers Jewish biromantic ace-spectrum representation in this new sapphic young adult novel about a perfectionist teenager planning her mother’s wedding.
Sixteen-year-old Felicity Becker is passionate about event planning, so when her mother gets engaged at the end of Felicity’s junior year, the wedding planning automatically becomes Felicity’s summer project. While her mom marches to the beat of her own drum, Felicity is determined to coordinate the “perfect” wedding in just a few months. Fortunately, Felicity’s long distance friend Nancy from queer camp last year has an apple orchard that would be an ideal wedding location. Thus, Felicity, her mom, and her mom’s fiancé pack their bags and visit Vermont for the summer, lodging at Nancy’s family’s guest house at the orchard.
As Felicity and Nancy spend more time together, feelings begin to simmer. But Felicity wonders how a relationship with Nancy would even work. Moreover, as the pressure builds to get this wedding planned perfectly, Felicity pushes herself harder and harder. At what cost is perfection achieved, and is something even perfection if it’s methodically and excruciatingly planned instead of spontaneously and presently experienced?
In this blog post, I break down my thoughts on Planning Perfect.
Overall, this is a pretty solid young adult novel!
The sole reason I read this book is for its asexual representation, so I’ll discuss this first! I appreciated that Felicity was established in her identity, so rather than a coming-of-age exploration of her identity, this dealt with considering how her asexuality would impact a romantic relationship with an allosexual partner. The narrator also offers an explanation of asexuality for readers who are unfamiliar, but I am concerned that the notion of “attraction does not equal action” was absent. At one point, Felicity meditates, “Was I asexual? No, I didn’t think so, because sometimes when I read those romance novels, I did like the sex scenes” (p. 59). Later in that paragraph, she settles on “ace-spectrum,” but I think it’s important to note that being asexual just means an absence of experiencing sexual attraction—-which means someone can not be sexually attracted but still like and want sex. Despite this one sentence, I feel that the rest of the novel was an excellent portrayal of an ace experience (just one of the infinite varieties of ace experiences). Overall, I value that Felicity is firm in her identity, and while she does question if she would be a fulfilling partner for Nancy, it’s less of a commentary on her own shortcomings and more so a logistical thought experiment.
In terms of representation, Planning Perfect hits quite a few marks. Felicity is ace, Jewish, fat, has anxiety, and is “fatherless” as her mother conceived her from a donor clinic. The fat representation is positive, meaning she experiences neither stigmatization nor fetishization and her weight is just another accepted quality about her, and her Jewish heritage is seen in their cuisine and traditions. Nancy is a lesbian and has both Korean and Swedish heritage, and Felicity’s friend Roo is gay and Arabic.
As this novel is narrated in first person POV, we get a glimpse of Felicity’s anxious thought patterns. Often, her worries convince her that the stakes are much higher than they are, assuming worst-possible scenarios as likely outcomes if she does not deliver perfection. However, Felicity is in therapy, and often after such thoughts, she talks herself through a different approach via her therapist’s suggestions. I think this is indicative of how anxiety manifests: often, it’s an instinctual thought, and through practice, we guide ourselves towards helpful habits. That being said, I can imagine that reading Felicity’s narrative may be triggering to some readers who experience heightened anxiety and invasive thoughts, so please be aware of this.
Perhaps the most unbelievable aspect of this novel is that a 16-year-old can competently plan an entire wedding event in the span of two months (which I say from the perspective of a 27-year-old who is anxious and overwhelmed at the prospect of planning my own wedding in the span of two whole years–lol). However, while highly competent in the event-planning sphere, Felicity does exhibit qualities characteristic of her young age in the emotional realm.
While reading this, I felt a little frustrated that the characters did not communicate their feelings or ask meaningful questions to their loved ones. Felicity, who has a lot on her plate and is a tad self-absorbed, does not seem to consider how her friends or family are feeling except to leap to extreme conclusions. And while this is symptomatic of teenagehood and anxiety, once Felicity acknowledges that she is going into a thought spiral, she rarely reaches out or speaks up to others to voice her feelings or ask for clarity. When Roo is acting distant, she doesn’t ask him why he seems bothered. When there is an issue between her and Nancy, she doesn’t ask Nancy what she wants or share her concerns.
In some ways, this makes this book incredibly realistic: in real life, people are self-absorbed and imperfect and forget to communicate with the people in their life. On the other hand, this is a self-proclaimed “romcom,” which means it’s automatically removed from what we consider “real life.” While the characters are supposed to make mistakes throughout the majority of the novel, at the end, they’re supposed to learn from them and show growth. In Planning Perfect, there is some good growth that occurs, but there are also some relationships that lack important closure for the reader. For example, Felicity’s grandmother is extremely pushy and demands perfection, and Felicity never really has the opportunity to realize she does not have appease her grandma in every way by setting boundaries. Nancy and Felicity never discuss what their relationship might look like or their expectations going into it, which was such a huge concern for Felicity for much of the last third. Thankfully, we do at least get some damage control between Felicity and Roo, who finally have a heart-to-heart after such a distant couple months.
Felicity’s mother is very hands-off except to remind her not to push herself too hard. From Felicity’s perspective, she is very resentful that her mother is so casual and not a “normal” mother, yet grows frustrated when she does try to exert some motherly guidance over her, such as encouraging her to drink a glass of water when Felicity is feeling unwell. However, while I do think Felicity (and Felicity’s grandmother) are far too hard on Hannah, Hannah also has her flaws. In the vein of communication shortcomings, Hannah does not want a grandiose wedding, but instead of outright saying that to Felicity, who is planning her wedding, Hannah instead just makes avoidant and facetious responses to Felicity’s questions—-necessary and direct questions such as what type of dress she’d like to wear. This is frustrating to the reader because it is evident to us Hannah does not put much stock in how her wedding turns out, but she needs to make this clear to her wedding planner daughter who has a history of anxiety.
On the topic of Felicity’s mental health, I also found it poignant how Felicity often feels like her mental health struggles are a burden to others, and when they do express care, she feels like she’s being condescended to. Perhaps this is why she refrains from readily sharing her feelings, because of the delicate balance between empathy and sympathy, and the pride of striving to be put-together and self-sustaining. Felicity feels as though she has to be militantly organized to counteract her mom’s flippancy, and in the limelight of her grandmother’s high standards, Felicity cannot reveal weakness. As frustrating as these character moments can be, ultimately (as I’m writing this review), I’m convincing myself that as contradictory, avoidant, and self-sabotaging as they are, this lends itself to a very authentic depiction of our genuine humanity.
A small, final critique I have, which builds off the communication aspect, is that I wished there was more of Nancy towards the end. She and Felicity have great chemistry together, and she was one of the most emotionally mature characters (along with Eric, Aunt Gwendoline, and shockingly, Brody). I missed her on the page during the falling out bit with Felicity—-a necessary choice, I suppose, as a third act drama and wake-up call to Felicity to how much Nancy means to her, but still an absent felt.
My gripes with the characters’ stern avoidance of communicating plainly aside, I do quite like this novel. The pacing is effective, and the writing is consistent and even funny. The representation is solid, and the characters are relatable even if the circumstances are not. It’s somewhere between a three or four stars out of five for me, and I’m inclined to lean towards four. I definitely recommend this book to readers from many different backgrounds.