On the elusive “perfect” novel…

I’m not sure there’s really such a thing as a “perfect” novel (all books can all be improved upon somehow, right?), but this weekend I read a story that was, in my opinion, about as close to perfection as one can get:

Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins was just SO FREAKING FABULOUS. I mean really… I found myself grinning like an idiot as I read, blown away by the awesomeness printed on every. Single. Page. I’m not going to go into a full review today (though one will surely come later!) because more than anything, Lola got me thinking about what makes a novel stand out as truly amazing.

Now, if you’re anything like me, you read several books in a month. The bulk of those might hover somewhere around GOOD (like, three or four stars on Goodreads). There are probably a few that STINK, or, just weren’t for you (the one or two star books). And, if you’re lucky, there might be one that separates itself from the pack. It’s that elusive five-star book that makes you laugh and cry and gasp and clench your fists in indignation and cheer for the characters as if you know them. It’s the book that makes you feel.

I think we can all agree that the perfect book is a careful combination and precarious balance of crucial literary elements, melded together in a seamless, harmonious way. A way that makes us care totally and completely about the future of the book’s characters. It’s those crucial elements, though, that are different for all of us. Some people are all about character development. Others, pacing. Some are looking for adventure, or gorgeous writing, or steamy romance, or a setting that sings. It’s the importance of each of these elements, and the way they’re merged, that makes some people swoon over Edward and Bella’s undying love, and others cringe in disgust.

It’s a very subjective thing.

For me, the crucial Big Five elements that play into MY perfect book are:

  • Relatable, likable main characters. These people need to sPaRkLe.
  • A believable, naturally progressing (read: HOT) romance.
  • Flawless, distinctly-styled writing with engaging, authentic dialogue.
  • A unique setting, so richly and beautifully described I want to go there. Or, so crazily terrifying it gives me nightmares.
  • The unexpected. Twists and turns that leave me reeling. My jaw needs to drop at least once.
If those Big Five are all there, skillfully blended, I’ve found a favorite. In fact, if my Big Five are strong enough, I can overlook other weaknesses. A slow pace, for example. Or a somewhat flat supporting character. Or a slightly unresolved ending. If my Big Five are present and accounted for, I’m going to care. I’m going to feel. I’m going to have an emotional experience, one I’ll always remember. I’m going to recommend that book up and down and all around. And I’m going to be a very happy reader. 

Books that are on my Favorites List because they so perfectly unify my Big Five: Gayle Forman’s If I Stay and Where She Went, Anna and the French Kiss and Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins, Melina Marchetta’s Jellicoe Road, Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, Veronica Roth’s Divergent, Franny Billingsley’s Chime, The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins, The American Wife by Curtis Sittenfield, and Jandy Nelson’s The Sky is Everywhere. 

What are your must-have elements for an ideal reading experience? What books are on your personal “Perfect” List?


23 thoughts on “On the elusive “perfect” novel…

  1. Gilly says:

    I’m also a huge fan of both of Stephanie Perkins’s books and I agree with you on the elements that made me love them!

    There are lots of different books I love for lots of different reaons:

    But the ones I would describe as near “perfect,” the ones that make me dream of writing a book someday that is half as wonderful, are Megan Whalen Turner’s Thief series. They’re set in a fictional pre-Industrial world and they sparkle with magical realism and mythology and adventure. I wasn’t sure I was into The Thief at first, but I kept reading and at the end, oh my God, I was simply blown away. And she does it again and again in EVERY SINGLE BOOK! It’s amazing. Except for the hot romance, they fit your criteria above – especially the twists and turns part. I think you’d love them.

    • katyupperman says:

      I’ve never heard of The THIEF Series, Gilly, but I’m definitely intrigued! I love some good twists and turns (so much so that I *might* be able to do without the romance ), so I will definitely check them out. Thanks for the recommendation!

  2. Rebecca B says:

    I agree that Lola is a pretty perfect book.
    Perfect for me: skilled writing, complex characters, themes that run deep, and truth. I want to feel like I have greater understanding of the world after I’ve read the book, even if it’s greater understanding of a small thing.

  3. Kirsten Lopresti says:

    I didn’t realize how much I’ve been reading lately until I noticed that I’d read half the books on your list. My very favorite YA book is the Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

    • katyupperman says:

      I just finished THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY… and loved it! It definitely has all the things I need to enjoy a novel, plus a special uniqueness that’s hard to put into words. Such a great book!

  4. Ciara Knight says:

    Wow, a nearly perfect book? Okay, I’ll have to check this out. I LOVE when I am so taken with a book that I can’t wait to shout it to the world. 🙂

  5. Alison Miller says:

    I must read this book! Anna was so delightful and funny and AMAZING. I think I need to treat myself to an early Christmas present.

    For me – a super awesome consistent voice, multi-dimensional characters who I fall in love with, who surprise me (in good ways) when I least expect it, humor, a hot steamy romance with an appropriate amount of foreplay before that first kiss, adventure, and definitely TWISTS. The writing doesn’t have to be super stylistic and the setting doesn’t have to be anything fantastic – I just want to feel like I’m there.

    Okay – I think that sums it up. Great post! You’re so inspiring!

    • katyupperman says:

      Ha! Thanks, Alison… I try. 🙂

      I love an awesome voice too. I think when the characters are multi-dimensional and the writing is stellar, the voice sings on its own. And twists! Yes, please!

  6. Colin says:

    What do I look for in the “perfect” novel? Believable dialog is a must. Also, I admire authors who can describe a setting in a few select words that conjure up the whole scene in my mind. I want to feel as if time in the story has been time well spent–at least time enjoyed. That’s all I can think of for now. Some examples? Off the top of my head: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Hunger Games, Jane Eyre, and Like Mandarin. I’m sure there are others, but these are the first that come to mind that hit all those elements.

    • katyupperman says:

      Those are some fabulous examples, Colin. I love To Kill a Mockingbird and The Hunger Games, and I’ve heard nothing but amazing things about Like Mandarin. And I totally agree about wanting my reading time to be well spent!

  7. Jessica Love says:

    I agree…LOLA really was the perfect book.

    I need those multi-dimensional characters, for sure. Lovely writing. No matter what kind of story it is, I need a romance of some sort…it’s just my thing. And it needs to smack me in the face in some way. I’m not sure I can really explain that one.

    To me DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE was perfect because it made me forget that it was fantasy, a genre I usually avoid because I don’t enjoy it. Not only did I enjoy that book, I LOVED it. I can’t stop thinking about it.

    • katyupperman says:

      I’m looking forward to reading SMOKE AND BONE, though, like you, I’m not usually a big fantasy reader. The fact that it made you overlook its genre makes it even more appealing! And I’m all about romance as well, as long as it’s authentic. The more the better! 🙂

  8. Jess Byam says:

    Hmmm… I think the perfect novel for me needs to have a vivid setting, realistic romance (the raw, heartbreaking kind you live and die for at the same time), characters who are believable in all their glory and flaws, a voice that either makes me laugh out loud or makes me think about the world in a deeper way. I also really crave books with extremely difficult moral dilemmas. My personal “perfect novels” are Peace Like a River by Leif Enger, Paranormalcy by Kiersten White, Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series, or Airman by Eoin Colfer.

    • katyupperman says:

      Jess, I haven’t read ANY of your favorites, though I did win Paranormalcy in a giveaway today and I’m looking forward to checking it out. I’ll be looking up the others as well.

      “…the raw, heartbreaking kind you live and die for at the same time…” <– Yes, yes, yes! Definitely the BEST kind of romance!

  9. Stephanie Allen (@stephandrea_) says:

    Lola! I won this one, but haven’t been able to read it yet because I’ve been so busy with school =( But I’m totally excited because I read Anna over the summer and have been recommending it to everyone I know ever since.

    I think the One Thing that is so important that I capitalized it is I need to BELIEVE. I need to believe that I’m in the setting; I need to believe the characters are real people. Basically, I need to be able to curl up in bed and forget that it’s rainy and cold and gross outside, or whatever. My personal favorites: Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins, Sabriel by Garth Nix, Looking for Alaska by John Green, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Across the Universe by Beth Revis…those are just the ones that I can think of off the top of my head.

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