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broodings from the burrow

January 23, 2011

into the stacks: the imperfectionists
posted by soe 3:39 am

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

From the jacket Powells: “Set against the gorgeous backdrop of Rome, Tom Rachman’s wry, vibrant debut follows the topsy-turvy private lives of the reporters, editors, and executives of an international English language newspaper as they struggle to keep it — and themselves — afloat. 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.” [Dear publishers: I really hate it when you fill the backs of your book jackets with quotes instead of a synopsis of the book. If I hadn’t already been aware of this book, I absolutely never would have bought it.]

My take: I held off several days after reading this book to try to collect my thoughts, but five days out and I’m still at a loss. I started hearing buzz about this book last summer shortly after the hardcover came out. As so often happens, I filed it away to look for at the library and then promptly forgot about it until the holiday season, when I was tasked with buying presents for two old ladies who exchange gifts without actually really knowing one another or doing their own shopping. I contemplated it then, but ultimately went with a different book for each of them. However, when I saw that the author was coming to my local bookstore for a reading associated with the release of the paperback, I was intrigued.

Author Tom Rachman at Politics and ProseTom Rachman seems unassuming and bashful and charming (although whether he is any of those things I leave up to people who’ve spent more than a minute with him) and the part of the book he read underscored my excitement at reading the book. I jumped right in.

The book itself, although described by many, including its publisher, as a novel is, in fact, a series of interconnected short stories, each focusing on a different person involved with a failing English-language newspaper based in Rome. Although each person interacts with the newsroom in some way (some are reporters, others editors, and a few outside the production of the daily paper), the focus of each vignette is on the character’s personal life and how that can affect their work life (and vice versa). Each character is individual and multi-layered and both likable and unlikable at the same time, and I suspect it is this that has garnered Rachman’s debut novel such praise. It’s a difficult skill for any writer to achieve at any point, let alone in their first published book.

And, yet…

I don’t think I liked it.

Have you ever watched The Office? It’s filled with characters you can sometimes sympathize with, but in general you don’t necessarily like, with the exception of Jim and Pam. This book was a lot like that, but without Pam or Jim to give you a clear protagonist to root for. You could make the argument that the newspaper itself should be what you’re cheering for, but by the end, I didn’t even really care if it survived, even if it was the major force in the lives of the dozen characters I’d just spent time with.

I admit to ambivalence about the book because I’m not sure I would have had the same reaction if I hadn’t read the final two chapters. I felt like these two stories veered off into darker places than I wanted to commit to, and the final piece, in particular, left me feeling like I’d been punched in the stomach. Without these final pieces, I can maybe see having liked the book overall, and just finding pieces of it a bit stressful, rather than leaving me with a distressing taste in my mouth that pollutes my whole opinion of the novel. [I had a similar reaction to The Elegance of the Hedgehog when I read it last year.]

I guess, in the end, I still don’t know what to tell you.

Pages: 283

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