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The Perfect Candidate

Review

The Perfect Candidate

Recent high school graduate Cameron Carter is about to embark on the most exciting summer of his life, moving from the rural nowhere of Lagrima, California, to the high stakes hustle of Washington, DC, interning in his congressman’s office on Capitol Hill. It’s a job he didn’t think he was qualified for, being somewhat of a “diversity hire,” in the words of his coworkers, as the son of a less-than-successful landscaper, but one he feels will cement his political destiny nonetheless. Cameron’s late mother had worked in DC prior to settling down in Lagrima to start a family, and he feels a duty to honor her memory by entering politics himself. The world of DC is all that he imagined and more, and it’s not until the sudden death of a coworker in a drunk driving accident that the “more” in that statement seems to suggest “more than he bargained for.” Details of the accident don’t add up; too many questions remain. It’s not until Cameron is accosted by a mysterious man during a tour of the Capitol that he realizes he might be in the middle of a political conspiracy, and that his friend’s death might not have been an accident after all.

"Peter Stone’s THE PERFECT CANDIDATE is a wonderfully orchestrated political thriller, trading in the tropes of the genre while still having enough twists and turns to evade predictability."

Peter Stone’s THE PERFECT CANDIDATE is a wonderfully orchestrated political thriller, trading in the tropes of the genre while still having enough twists and turns to evade predictability. The story offers us some expected and exciting set pieces with dire foot chases across the Mall, after-hours office espionage, Deep Throat-style meetings in dark and abandoned places, coded messages and clues leading to an ever-broadening web of conspiracy and even a romantic rendezvous atop the Washington Monument. It feels appropriately exciting without placing its teen protagonist in absurdly dangerous situations.

Author Peter Stone also uses his firsthand experience as a former Congressional intern to give verisimilitude both to the feel and character of DC as a city, and to the inner-workings of a Congressman’s office. You won’t find high-tenor philosophical conversations about what it means to be an American, here. Congressional interns are dispatched from their office to sit idly in the fields of the National Mall, reserving a hotly contested space through “dibs,” for the congressional softball leagues. It’s serious work. The interns are often staffing phone banks, compiling spreadsheets and trying to score free food from any of the dozens of receptions being held on the Hill on a given day. In demystifying the goings on in these offices, Stone grounds his story in the practical details of an insider’s experience, which helps to make the stakes of the plot feel higher in comparison. This insider knowledge also leads to some of the book’s best moments of humor, such as Cameron’s fellow intern, Hillary, desperately longing to make the list of the 50 Hottest Congressional Staffers (which is, by the way, a very real thing).

Something else that Stone completely nails in THE PERFECT CANDIDATE is an area that many young adult authors struggle with: text messages. Often, they’re formatted weirdly, with an overuse of emoji/emoticons to seem casual, or they sound stilted and artificially abbreviated in their composition. But here they are perfectly rendered. About a third of the way through the book, Cameron begins dating the daughter of the US Ambassador to Mexico, and outside of a few dates most of their relationship is revealed through text messages. They don’t read like they were composed by a man several decades past his teen years. Stone has a refreshingly strong grasp of how teens are texting (which is to say, more like adults than adults want to give them credit for) and this goes a long way towards fleshing out some of the book’s supporting cast.

It’s also a neat trick to read a book so entwined with our current political climate and revolving around governmental misdeeds that doesn’t feel aggressively partisan in its outlook. Stone doesn’t shy away from commenting on particular policies or periods of political rule in American history, but does so in a way that speaks to the broader cultural problems of Washington. It’s a story that feels current and specific without taking shots at any one figure, which would run the risk of distracting readers from the action of the story. Much like with a television show such as “Veep” or “The Thick of It,” THE PERFECT CANDIDATE is more successful in its plotting and lampooning of DC culture by striking at the broad flaws of the city rather than laser-focusing on individual incidents.

About the only frustration this book offers, and it feels a bit severe to even use the word frustration, is the embedded sequel set-up in the book’s closing moments. I won’t give away any of the details or plotting that leads up to it, but there’s a narrative thread in the book which gets completely exploded in the final few pages and is more than a bit silly in the reveal, given the context of everything that came before it. It’s the kind of thread you’d want to see fully explored in a sequel, but one which feels out of place as a teaser at the end of a long narrative. Still, seeing what Stone is capable of in THE PERFECT CANDIDATE makes even a silly sequel tease somewhat exciting.

Teen readers looking for a story steeped in political intrigue and DC insider knowledge would be hard-pressed to find a better book for it. Add to that the book’s humor, well-crafted characters and strong sense of place and THE PERFECT CANDIDATE really lives up to its title.

Reviewed by Killian Walsh on October 17, 2018

The Perfect Candidate
by Peter Stone