A mother fighting for life, a father demanding perfection, and a son struggling with chaos…
From a distance, Felix Fitzwilliam, the son of an old English family, is a good husband and father. But, obsessed with order and routine, he’s a prisoner to perfection. Disengaged from the emotional life of his North Carolina family, Felix has let his wife, Ella, deal with their special-needs son by herself.
A talented jewelry designer turned full-time mother, Ella is the family rock…until her heart attack shatters their carefully structured existence. Now Harry, a gifted teen grappling with the chaos of Tourette syndrome, confronts a world outside his parents’ control, one that tests his desire for independence.
As Harry searches for his future, and Ella adapts to the limits of her failing health, Felix struggles with his past and present roles. To prevent the family from being ripped apart, they must each bend with the inevitability of change and reinforce the ties that bind.
The Perfect Son is now available in Italy and Germany.
Reviews of The Perfect Son
“Barbara Claypole White’s novel, The Perfect Son, is a riveting and passionate emotional journey that proves the transforming power that love can have on life and family.”
Dorothea Benton Frank, New York Times Bestselling author of The Hurricane Sisters
"What a moving, funny, beautifully told story! You will ache for Felix and Harry, with their big, quirky brains and their good hearts, as they grapple with the threat of loss and struggle, for the first time, to truly know and trust one another. I love these characters and this book!"
Marisa de Los Santos, New York Times bestselling author of Belong to Me and The Precious One.
“With empathy and heartbreaking clarity, Barbara Claypole White explores a family on the precipice of collapse. With the unexamined past coloring their present, a father’s only hope to accept his son’s limitations and be strong for his ailing wife is in finding the resilience to face his own imperfections. The Perfect Son offers insight, compassion and hope.”
- Randy Susan Meyers, bestselling author of Accidents of Marriage, The Comfort of Lies and The Murderer’s Daughters
"In The Perfect Son White has crafted a tightly-wound tale of a family on the brink of unravelling that somehow manages to find a way to make it through. These unconventional, fully-formed characters became real to me as I followed their emotional roller-coaster. Poignant and affecting--it's a great read for your bookclub!"
Catherine McKenzie, bestselling author of Hidden and Forgotten
"With clear-eyed insight and empathy, The Perfect Son captures the ache and beauty of love in its many forms. In a beautifully told story, Barbara Claypole White takes us on a poignant journey through the minds and hearts of a mother, a father and their eccentric son. As they all learn to love through loss, change and fear, we as readers just might find our hearts as the characters find theirs."
- Patti Callahan Henry, New York Times bestselling author of The Idea of Love.
“The Perfect Son is about the roles we settle into in families--The Caretaker, The Neglector, The High-Maintenance One--and the upheaval that occurs when crisis strikes and everyone needs to take on a new, unfamiliar role. It's about raising complicated children, and the strain that places on a marriage. But above all, The Perfect Son is about love, and its ability to guide us out of our comfort zones and help us rebuild when all around us has shattered.”
Julie Lawson Timmer, author of Five Days Left.
“I’ve been a fan of Barbara Claypole White’s work for many years now. This is, without question, her best yet. The Perfect Son is amazing. This story - the intricacies of the characters – the experiences they have. Just. So. Good.”
Good Girl Gone Redneck
“The Perfect Son was a masterful pileup of contradictory emotions: heart-swelling versus heart-breaking, hope versus despair, and denial versus acceptance. In other words, it was one captivating read, and I literally hugged it when I finished.”
Jennie Shaw Book Review with Cover Mani
“Beautiful writing and prose, for a thought-provoking tale of family, struggles, and survival. The character development was stellar, and White skillfully crafts and weaves you through emotional highs and lows with intensity and suspense.”
Judith D Collins Must Reads
The story behind the story for The Perfect Son
This story grew out of several unrelated moments in my life and, as with everything I write, comes back to my passion for poking holes in stereotypes of mental or neurological disabilities.
I’ve always wanted to create a character with Tourette syndrome, and I’ve long been fascinated by the 80 percent divorce rate among families raising special-needs kids. My son has battled obsessive-compulsive disorder for most of his life, and I’m active in a support group for parents of OCD kids. I’ve watched many marriages in that community crumble. After someone asked why my marriage had survived, I started researching a story about a broken marriage and a high-maintenance teen in crisis. Then three separate events occurred.
The first event was a routine medical procedure that went horribly wrong. I ended up in the ICU, and the strain on my guys, who are both empathetic, was unbearable. We got through that crisis, but a few months later, on a family trip to visit my mother in England, I was struck down by a virus that manifested as asthma. I couldn’t breathe, and the steroids I was prescribed made my heart race. Since I have genetic heart issues, it was hard not to freak out. One night, my husband sat up with me for hours, holding my hand while I chanted silently, “I am not sick, I am not sick, I am not sick.” The next day, I wrote two pages of gibberish about a wife who has a heart attack. (I think that was therapy for dealing with my own fear.) The final incident happened on the flight home from a literary festival in Ireland when some poor guy collapsed three rows in front of me. (Yes, I was the bad person taking notes.)
I ditched the manuscript I was working on—which felt way too serious—and started fleshing out the Fitzwilliams. I’m drawn to dark humor, and the characters kept making me smile. Once I’d found Max, the punk / math genius who uses perfect grammar in his texts, there was no going back. From that moment on, my life was all about Harry. (That was my working title, It’s All about Harry.)
To arrange a visit with your book club, in person or via Skype, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reading Group Guide (Spoiler Alert!)
- No one in the novel is quite as he or she seems at first. Ella, for example, appears to be the perfect mother, but is filled with hidden doubts and insecurities; Felix appears to be a rigid control freak, and yet every decision he makes for the family pushes him beyond his comfort zone. As the story unfolds, did any of the other characters surprise you, and if so, in what ways? Do you agree that we are often too quick to pigeonhole a person based on one aspect of his or her personality?
- Felix is a dark, unlikely hero. Even as Katherine warms to him, she calls him an antihero. How do you feel about Felix, and did those feelings change while you were reading the novel? Is Felix his own worst critic?
- Were you shocked by Felix's flashback scene? Do you think we ever truly know what goes on in a family?
- Harry does not have coprolalia—the involuntary and repetitive use of obscene language. Coprolalia is, however, the most common popular image of Tourette's, even though it affects only a small percentage of people with Tourette syndrome. Do you agree that fictional characters struggling with neurological or mental disorders are often depicted using stereotypes? Do any of your family members battle an invisible disability, and if so, what have you found to be the most challenging part of explaining quirky behavior to the outside world?
- When parenting a high-maintenance child, do the lines blur between being a helicopter parent and being a child advocate? Does Ella's health crisis speed up the natural process of separation and boundary setting that she and Harry must experience?
- How do Harry's relationships with both his parents change during the novel?
- How did you react to Ella's attempts to distance herself from Harry while she was in the hospital? What would you have done in her situation?
- Harry and Max have a unique bond. What did you like most about their relationship? Do you think they will be BFFs forever, despite taking such different life paths?
- What do you think is the emotional core of Ella and Felix's marriage? Are they well matched or an unlikely couple? Do you agree with Felix that the two months following the heart attack are a gift—a second chance for them?
- In chapter one, Ella refers to the stranger sitting next to her as the good father, and throughout the novel, both she and Felix question what it means to be a good parent. What do you think it means? Do you agree with them that the hardest lesson of parenthood is learning to let go?
- Do you have a favorite secondary character? If so, who and why?
- One of the novel's themes is that a person can find clarity and empathy in a moment of unbearable darkness. Does the Fitzwilliam family crisis bring out the best in all the characters, including the secondary ones?
- Ella's journey is a solitary one, whereas Felix is drawn increasingly into a community of support, something he's never experienced before. What do you think about that?
- Why doesn't Ella die on the plane? Do you think she ever believed she would get better?
- We see various settings in historic Durham, North Carolina, from Felix's perspective. What did you learn about Felix through the different settings—especially the scenes at Duke Gardens and the Nasher Museum of Art? Why do you think Felix, a Londoner who loves the afternoon sun, was drawn to a house hidden in shade at the edge of Duke Forest? Do you think Felix will stay in the house?
- How did you react to the ending?
Please download this printer friendly version of the reading group guide The Perfect Son.
The Perfect Son listening guide:
“I Don’t Love You” - My Chemical Romance
“Bizarre Love Triangle” - New Order
“The Afterman” - Coheed and Cambria
“Ordinary Love” - U2
“Pearl of the Stars” - Coheed and Cambria
“Woman in Chains” (with Oleta Adams) - Tears for Fears
“Every Breaking Wave” - U2
“Hey There, Pretty Girl” - The Arcadian Project
“Love Will Tear Us Apart” - Joy Division
“I Don’t Understand Anything” - Everything but the Girl
“The Fifth Day” - The Airborne Toxic Event
“Smiley Faces” - Gnarls Barkley
“This Is London” - The Airborne Toxic Event
“Planetary (GO!)” - My Chemical Romance
“Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own” - U2
“The Way Home” - The Airborne Toxic Event
“Fix You” - Coldplay
“Reptilia” - The Strokes
“When Two Worlds Collide” - Simple Minds
“1979” - The Smashing Pumpkins
“The Windmill” - The Arcadian Project
“Anthem” - Leonard Cohen
“The Only Hope for Me Is You” - My Chemical Romance
“Let Me Go” (extended version) - Heaven 17
“Skyfall” - Our Last Night
“The Kids from Yesterday” - My Chemical Romance
“The Graveyard near the House” - The Airborne Toxic Event
“Troublemaker” - Green Day
“Carolina in My Mind” - James Taylor
“Waterfront” - Simple Minds
“Exogenesis: Symphony Part 3 (Redemption)” - Muse
“Kite” - U2
“The Disappearance Symphony: One Last Question” - The Arcadian Project