Picture Perfect by Jodi Picoult

Is it read-worth? This book was beautiful and I could not put it down. I felt Cassie’s love. I felt her sorrow. I felt her pain. And I’ve never been more proud of a character for changing her life in such a simple way. Yet, this book, so beautiful because of the complex and abusive relationship at the center of it, was made lacking because of the moments where Jodi Picoult tried to “spice up” that central story line. Cassie and Alex’s relationship should have remained at the center of it all. Stereotypical views of modern Native American culture seemed trite in the face of their relationship. With that, Picoult completely missed the mark. 

A Little Bit of Background (Spoiler Alert!!)

In the beginning of Picture Perfect, Cassie is found by an L.A. police officer, William Flying Horse, near a local graveyard. She is suffering from amnesia, cannot remember her own name, and is completely lost. 

Needless to say she’s surprised to find that she’s an extremely successful anthropologist married to the one and only, Hollywood beloved actor – Alex Rivers. 

Alex Rivers is a hollywood legend. Everyone loves him. His coworkers, his fans, and his wife. Everyone seems to be obsessed with him and because of their unending love, he gives them what he thinks they want: A perfect man with a perfect wife and a perfect job. He has everything he could ever want.

And when Cassie is reunited with him she’s shocked by it all. The gorgeous, sprawling mansion with a staff. She’s shocked by their famous friends. She has such a hard time taking it in to the point where it almost feels fake. 

In part, that’s because it is. 

Cassie and Alex were both raised by abusive, neglectful parents. Their childhood was shaped by alcohol and low self esteem. Alex was left feeling unloved and develops an overall sense of self-loathing. Cassie’s family left her feeling alone, even in the face of the death of her best friend Connor who seems to haunt her thoughts throughout the book. They both need love at any and all costs, but neither really know what love looks like. 

Alex Rivers beats his wife. Cassie blames herself for it. 

She hides from public eyes, constantly makes excuses for his bad behavior, and neglects her own needs and wants in favor of his. Cassie always forgives Alex and, more than that, she’s always there for him. Even when he’s never there for her. 

Cassie remembers that she left Alex in order to protect the pregnancy and was beaten half to death as a result, resulting in her unfortunately timed amnesia. Once she remembers, she doesn’t know what to do. 

Alex turning violent again makes her decision for her and she decides she must, once again, leave him. Cassie flees from Alex to take refuge on a Native American reservation. She hides from her husband for months and slowly falls in love with the land and the people she stays with. 

But, eventually, all things come to an end and she returns home with her newly born child, Connor. They hold a press-conference announcing the birth and dismissing any fears over her lack of public appearances.

To the press, they seem like the picture perfect family. 

But that’s all it is. It’s just a picture. 

All too soon, Alex turns violent once more- unable to maintain his facade in the face of a newborn child, rebuilding his career after accusations over his wife’s disappearance leave him shackled and his last movie’s failure, and an unwillingness to get help for his problems. 

He beats her with the baby in the room next to them. 

But this time she makes a commitment. The normal quiet, devoted Cassie makes an announcement in front of the media that her husband of three years, the beloved Hollywood star, beats her. She shows the world her bruises and makes no excuses for his behavior.

And the entire time, Alex is standing in the crowd looking at her with complete understanding in his eyes. 

What Makes the Book (Spoilers!)

This book is made by that last scene where Cassie pulls up her shift in front of a crowd of people, shows them the bruises that frame her ribcage, and almost begs them to understand that she’s been abused. Her love for Alex and her love for her child are the most prevalent in this one closing scene and it’s what makes the book so completely powerful.

She says it herself: she can’t make herself not love Alex, but she must make him hate her. Turning the press against him, possibly ruining his career in the process, is her only path forward and the fact that she commits to it so completely is awe-inspiring. 

It gives me, and hopefully other survivors of abuse, hope. 

She is an abuse victim who manages to de-victimize herself and take action against those who would continue to hurt her. She changes her own life without asking anyone for permission. This is the only part of the book where she is not running and hiding from her problems, but confronting them head on. 

And it’s beautiful. 

I also love the fact that this book included such a complex viewpoint of abusive relationships. The nature of the emotions can be so puzzling to get through and Jodi Picoult navigates them beautiful. 

She shows the classic enabler in Cassie. Someone who is willing to make excuses for another’s behavior and even blame themselves for the abuse. And she also shows the typical actions of an abusive partner. Alex Rivers may beat his wife, but, in the moments afterwards, he is so completely filled with regret. He cries, he buys her lavish gifts, he professes his love, and he gives her the grandest moments. 

Picoult shows the ups and downs of an abusive relationship so well. 

And, yet, she makes this example easier (emotionally) to read. How? Because this story, while so similar to so many people, is still so different. Alex is a star in Hollywood and his cycles of abuse are directly related to the roles he plays. This gives the book an interesting twist to a classic story and, somehow, makes the scenes of abuse a little less gruesome. They’re great ways to relate to an experience or overcome similar experiences you’ve had, but, at the same time, the chances of them being your exact experience are slim. It is clear to the reader that they are not Cassie and that their partner is not Alex. It makes the scenes less scary, but without compromising the necessary realism found within them. 

But, to be perfectly honest, it’s that complex relationship that is the ONLY thing I value in this book. 

What I Could Do Without (Spoilers!)

And, yet, while all of those parts of the book are beautiful- some parts of the storyline feel unnecessary, stereotypical, and just miss the mark for me.

Including the Native American culture as Cassie’s saving point was the primary example of that. In no way do I mean to devalue that unique culture, but the way Picoult includes pieces of it does just that. 

I don’t feel like I get to know anything beyond stereotypes. One Native American man dies because of alcohol abuse, another is obsessed with a white woman, a savage ritual of self-harm was performed, and the legends included are simultaneously over discussed and under-utilized. 

If Cassie was supposed to learn something from the Native Americans, I completely missed the point. It just seemed like Picoult was reaching for a more interesting place for her to escape to and decided to choose a culture most readers don’t directly experience without reason. I would love her to write a better book where Native American culture is further discussed, she is fully capable of doing so, but this book did the culture no justice and it just felt misplaced. 

And I also found myself disappointed in the way Alex and Cassie fell in love. They knew each other for such a short period of time, had such little emotional connection in the beginning, and set unrealistic expectations for similar whirlwind romances. For him, I could blame it on him acting the part of his character. (They fell in love when he was performing in a movie as an archaeologist and she just happened to be nearby.) But her love for him confused me? In the beginning, Cassie seemed so strong. She didn’t take his crap. She didn’t encourage strong behavior. And, yet, she fully accepted early on that he was going to abuse her and she was going to take it. 

While I love the complex view of a complex problem of abuse, I don’t know if their emotional ties were truly strong enough to justify her staying to begin with. The view of the abuse was eye-opening, but the fact that Cassie so completely fell in love with Alex in such a short period of time before the abuse started that she wouldn’t have left him for it left me confused. 

Overall Review

Overall, I’d still recommend reading this book. I love Picoult’s style of writing and I love looking deeper into serious problems in our society. Being given an inspirational moment where an abused woman escapes her abuser is magical. But I’d keep in mind that some of the side stories are misplaced and shouldn’t have been included.