'Perfect Fifths' Picture Perfect

'Perfect Fifths' by Megan McCafferty (Crown)

On her twenty-sixth birthday, Jessica Darling runs into her ex-boyfriend at the airport. When he learns Jessica missed her flight, Marcus fabricates his own travel mishap. Stranded together for 12 hours, they finally sort out their decade long history, without particular emphasis what happened in the three years since she turned down his marriage proposal. “Perfect Fifths,” Megan McCafferty’s fifth novel, is light reading, but it’s also an intelligent, stylized, humorous exploration of the psychology of memory and narrative.

Since McCafferty’s debut “Sloppy Firsts,” the Jessica Darling Series has never been firmly in one genre or directly targeted at a clear audience. The first few books straddled the boundary between young adult and mainstream fiction, and as the protagonist and authorial risks have matured, McCafferty has positioned herself between “chick-lit” and more literary-minded fiction. On appearances and plot summary alone, “Perfect Fifths” seems to fall squarely within the realm of the former, but there is a psychological depth to the light, funny diction that would ordinarily make a novel targeted at young women a “quick read.”

Plotwise, the novel relies heavily on the background of the previous four books. A unified referential significance of events and dialogue proves McCafferty’s skill at tying up and explaining questions left throughout the series. Most of the time she sews meaning cleverly enough to avoid overt exposition. Couching explanation in witty, realistic dialogue, McCafferty gets away with telling a lot more than would normally be acceptable.

However, as a work in isolation, “Perfect Fifths” is heavy on back-story and characters that are mentioned briefly but never seem to appear. These hanging details may be a source of annoyance for uninitiated readers: performer Barry Manilow’s music, for instance, has been a thread running through the series. McCafferty uses his songs, such as “Ready To Take A Chance Again” and “Can’t Smile Without You” as a metaphor for Jessica and Marcus’s relationship. But bringing in a Vegas-bound tour group of elderly Manilow fans and having them stay at the same hotel as Jessica and Marcus is a quirk in the story that strays close to too convenient to ring true.

Suspension of disbelief at his repeated appearances aside, the choice of Barry Manilow as a motif works toward the ongoing theme of Jessica at once decrying and embracing the maudlin. Just as she tries to take herself seriously, she’s brought down humorously.

Conveyed directly, irony seems only a result of hyper-focused preoccupation with her own life. When the situations she finds herself in are instead rendered from an objective perspective, it ceases to suggest she’s creating the plot-like quality of her life for herself. The use of third person lends an enhancing element of dramatic irony through seeing both Jessica and Marcus’s processing of the same present events and histories as they diverged from the same point.

“Perfect Fifths” renders an interesting balance between intimacy and distance of characterization. It is primarily third person, a departure from the first-person letters and diary entries that were the rest of the series. Throughout the novel, McCafferty branches into more unconventional forms.

One chapter is written in haikus that alternates between the perspectives of Jessica and Marcus. Another section is entirely rapid-fire dialogue. These sections punch up the emotional power of the prose.

They also contrast with the distancing effect of the rest of the book, a trade-off to access both main characters’ interiors. The climax is written in fragmented phrases from the rest of the series, strung together to suggest the onslaught of associative memory inside the characters minds. McCafferty is at her best in first-person, but this change in point of view deals appropriately with the questions of narrative and memory that “Perfect Fifths,” uniquely, seems to engage.

McCafferty takes this one step further when Jessica discusses the merits of using third-person writing in a narrative therapy project to empower high school girls: “‘We call this writing exercise the turning point of view. The change in narrative perspective triggers an internal psychological shift that allows you to see past decisions in a whole new way. It’s similar to when you see a friend making a huge mistake and it’s just so obvious.’”

And so “Perfect Fifths” becomes a meta-fiction, and even its narrative point of view serves the themes of memory and revision. If it is chick-lit, it stretches the genre’s limits, keeping the best of its readability and trading fluff for wit.

—Staff writer Chelsea L. Shover can be reached at clshover@fas.harvard.edu.