Since he was young, Dr. Angelo Perrotta has had one goal: become a wealthy doctor. Growing up poor, being abandoned by his alcoholic father when he was two, and watching his mother die a slow and painful death from cancer encouraged Angelo to distance himself from his upbringing and cling to the idea that wealth and status would remake him and fulfill all his needs. When he’s offered a spot in a Manhattan private practice fresh out of residency with his prestigious mentor, Dr. Stanzione, Angelo knows he’s this close to attaining everything he’s worked so damn hard for; being tasked to shadow the charismatic and handsome Demetre Kostas, owner of the aesthetic practice downstairs, is a bonus.
Angelo is intrigued by the man who can flip from brutal, cruel honesty to flirtatious charm in a blink. Demetre seems to want to help Angelo succeed and gives him insights about Dr. Stanzione, whose shortcomings Angelo is blind to or is quick to overlook. Mesmerized by the older man and his attention, hungry for success, and woefully blind to red flags, Angelo finds himself on the brink of disaster—trapped in a maelstrom of imploding lives that Angelo is powerless to stop. However, in the mist of his turmoil, Angelo is forced to reevaluate his priorities, learns to value those closest to him more, and maybe finds love along the way—which only gives him more to lose.
Perfect Flaw is more a character-driven, coming-of-age cautionary tale than mystery. Angelo may be in his late twenties, but he’s extremely naïve about people and quick to trust those with a silver tongue, especially older men. He’s very much like Pip from Great Expectations—he considers himself poor white trash, believes that being rich and moving up the social ladder will give him everything he needs/wants, and is blinded by that desire; he is also quick to spin pipe dreams of love from thin air. Growing up poor and then attending institutions where so many of his peers come from families with means makes Angelo crave the privilege and esteem these people are automatically given (whether they deserve it or not). Unfortunately, he’s ashamed of his humble roots and views himself (and in turn his upbringing and sister) with the same disdain that some have shown him. In his own words, he’s “shamelessly aspirational” so he ends up being overly eager to please, willing to be humiliated by his “betters” to earn their praise, and thus, distressingly malleable and easily victimized, even as he burns with anger.
The narrative and Angelo’s progression cover some serious topics—abandonment issues, abuse, substance use disorders, failures in our health care system, loss of self, etc. that I wanted to sink into and watch evolve, but everything is so in your face I couldn’t get into it. I may have been able to enjoy Perfect Flaw more if I connected better with Spinelli’s writing style. So many of the story components are heightened or extreme that I had to double check that it isn’t satire. The narrative makes it clear in neon lights that the people Angelo looks up to/associates with care most about money and status and, in doing so, have forgone values such as empathy and compassion. Having wealth hasn’t made them happy, and they are in a constant cycle of trying to attain more. Dr. Stanzione is everything Angelo aspires to be. He is respected, wealthy, and a gay man of Italian heritage Angelo adds to his collection of father figures, but despite outward appearances, Stanzione is as dissatisfied and “shamelessly aspirational” as Angelo. Demetre has indigent roots like Angelo and too finds a path to status, but he’s constantly chasing more no matter the cost to himself or others. All good stuff, but the tendency to hammer and shout elements at me (sometimes more than once) pulled me out of the story; I tend to like more subtly in my conflicted characters/stories, and if I’m not expecting satire/parody or a more in your face style, it can color my enjoyment.
Like a lot of debut novels, the narrative is full of societal, personal, and psychological concepts it wants to delve into, but has trouble incorporating seamlessly, something exemplified by Angelo. I believe he is supposed to be somewhat emotionally chaotic because he has focused so long on chasing wealth and prestige he’s become disconnected from himself and important values, but at times he comes across as disjointed instead. Angelo’s imposter syndrome, hidden anxiety, anger/shame for growing up fatherless, and disconnect from his emotions is enough fodder for a great character study, but he gets bogged down with extra traits that are introduced and not explored/explored poorly. Between the various ways Angelo’s daddy issues manifest, polar opposite emotional pivots, and unearned character beats that can seem to come out of nowhere, it makes him feel more like a repository of psychological issues.
There are also some structural elements and details that disengaged me from the story at times. For one, the story is contemporary, but includes some things that, to me, makes it feel like it’s taking place 15-20 years ago. There are also more blatant timing issues/details that contradict one another or don’t make much sense in the context of the information given, and since I pay more attention to things when reading mysteries, the discrepancies are distracting; add in some jagged transitions and awkward metaphors/phrasing and the rough edges overshadow the story elements that work.
Despite being billed as a mystery, I don’t think Perfect Flaw is one; at best, it’s a psychological thriller that tacks on an action/suspense element at the last minute. The blurb seems to mention a character to prime the reader to be suspicious, but there is little suspense in the narrative for me; at most, he gets some side-eye because of his likability as most of the people Angelo associates with are sus in one way or another. This book is a character study of a lot of flawed folks in which the MC learns some very hard lessons about himself, what he should value, and how his unacknowledged trauma can shape his choices to ruinous effect, but there’s nothing unknown or mysterious about any of it. We get a Rear Window-esque piece that should be suspenseful, but any doubt is resolved pretty quickly and Angelo is again just dealing with the aftermath of his actions until the tacked on twist at the end that’s mysterious only for its inclusion.
For those looking for a character-driven story with a lot of explorations and themes—how society beats the value of beauty and wealth into you and how damaging that is; the reverberations abuse (physical or substance) leaves on the psyche and the way survivors can echo/amplify its effects; rediscovering the importance of having people who will love and stick by you; rediscovering self, etc. then you may enjoy Perfect Flaw. While the execution may not have worked for me and I found the lack of mystery disappointing, I can see those who gel more with the author’s style enjoying it.