A NovelBook - 2010
Fifty years and many changes have ensued since the paper was founded by an enigmatic millionaire, and now, amid the stained carpeting and dingy office furniture, the staff's personal dramas seem far more important than the daily headlines. Kathleen, the imperious editor in chief, is smarting from a betrayal in her open marriage; Arthur, the lazy obituary writer, is transformed by a personal tragedy; Abby, the embattled financial officer, discovers that her job cuts and her love life are intertwined in a most unexpected way. Out in the field, a veteran Paris freelancer goes to desperate lengths for his next byline, while the new Cairo stringer is mercilessly manipulated by an outrageous war correspondent with an outsize ego. And in the shadows is the isolated young publisher who pays more attention to his prized basset hound, Schopenhauer, than to the fate of his family's quirky newspaper.
As the era of print news gives way to the Internet age and this imperfect crew stumbles toward an uncertain future, the paper's rich history is revealed, including the surprising truth about its founder's intentions.
Spirited, moving, and highly original, The Imperfectionists will establish Tom Rachman as one of our most perceptive, assured literary talents.
From the critics
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The book gives one chapter to each character connected by an international newspaper based in Rome. Most of the characters are on the newspaper staff, although some are mothers and lovers of newspaper staffers. The book jacket promises a meaningful connection between these many chapters, which is why I pursued the book. However, I did not find the connections particularly meaningful. The chapters, individually, are beautifully written and very sensitive to true human emotion. This is a serious, strong novel. The stories are not happy. Many of the characters deal with depression, loneliness, frustration, futility. The novel displays a bleak outlook on human life, as each person is on their own sinking ship.
For my money, 2011 has been the year of the debut novel. Without so intending, I've reviewed more than a few of them in this space, from Matthew Norman's smutty, snarky *Domestic Violets*, to paranormal romance sensation Deborah Harkness' *A Discovery of Witches*, to the vintage appeal and gentle romance of Erin McKean's *The Secret Lives of Dresses*, just to name a couple. I'm not sure why I've been drawn to so many of them this year; maybe it's that the authors pour so much of themselves into these novels? Whatever it is, thank goodness publishing houses have discovered them too, and decided to put the time and resources into marketing these newcomers.<br />
Perhaps the best-written debut novel I read this year is Vancouver author Tom Rachman's *The Imperfectionists*. A compact saga detailing the rise and slow decay of an English-language newspaper based in Rome, it packs a lot of humanity in under 300 pages. <br />
The novel is broken into two parallel narratives. One narrative focuses a chapter at a time on the lives of the various staff working at the paper. This is where Rachman's prose really shines – each chapter is really a character study of the personal and work life of the chapter's subject. Incredible empathy is brought to each character, even those who don't come off at all well in earlier chapters belonging to other characters. All these chapters are set at the end of George W Bush's war in Iraq, as the paper struggles to make ends meet in a fraught economic environment, battling it out in print-only format as the general news media's physical presence slowly fades to bits and evanescent silver LCD screens. Rachman slips seamlessly into the worldview of each subject, letting the personality colour his prose with humour, kindness, exhaustion, or whatever other dominant trait tints each particular worldview.<br />
Between each of the character study chapters are brief narrative chapters detailing major events in the history of the paper. These give context to the character studies, and help build anticipation as the reader moves toward the conclusion of the book – will the paper's staunch anti-electronic stance gain it a certain cachet in the market? Will staff be able to amp up their investigative skills and their feature writing to gain enough new readers? Can the paper possibly survive the strife in its Board?<br />
With a spare, empathic beauty to its writing, *The Imperfectionists* is a masterpiece of a debut novel. It's earned a place solidly within my list of top 5 reads for the year, and is well worth a glance for readers who value spare, lyrical prose in character-driven literary fiction.
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