Monday, May 2, 2011

The Imperfectionists: Review

{Possible spoiler later on} I am very on the fence with Tom Rachman's book, The Imperfectionists. I don't love it and I don't hate it....but then I don't really feel "Meh" about it either. I'm just not sure what to think. The blurb says that the book is "set against the gorgeous backdrop of Rome." True, but Rachman doesn't really describe that gorgeous backdrop to the reader, so I'm not sure that it matters all that much what city serves as the backdrop. There are reviews which say that Rachman has a vivid sense of time and place. I just didn't get that. Rome does not make an impression on me in this book. The frontispiece also calls this a "wry, vibrant debut." Maybe. In places. But the book is very uneven and disconcerting. It's almost as if he's trying to do too much here.

The book focuses on an international English-language paper which has been established in Rome by businessman Cyrus Ott. It covers a fifty-year period during which the paper struggles to keep afloat and gives us a close-up view of the paper's staff of the near-past (2007). It also shows very vividly the struggles that the newspaper business has faced from the advent of television and 24-hour news channels to the internet where today's newsprint headlines are already yesterday's news. In that respect, this is a very poignant novel.

More importantly to the "story" (and I use that term loosely, since there really is no overarching "story"), what Rachman has given the reader is a series of vignettes starring various members of the current staff. To some extent these stories are interwoven and we see some of the characters from various viewpoints. This is quite interesting and could be quite successful. Sprinkled in between these vignettes he has also given us a history of the newspaper on which these staff members work. Quite honestly, I was more intrigued by the history of the newspaper than I was by some of the staff stories. To be even more honest, quite a few of these stories really disturbed me. It seemed that every person on the staff of this international newspaper is absolutely determined to destroy all the supportive human ties in their lives....or circumstances in their lives beyond their control do it for them. Very depressing. The most enjoyable stories for me were those about Herman Cohen and his life-long friend Jimmy, who isn't quite the man Herman thinks he is, and the long-time subscriber Ornella de Monterecchi who reads newspapers like other people read books and who hadn't quite read through all her copies to the present day yet. Rachman almost had me in the story of Oliver Ott (grandson of the man who founded the paper) and his basset hound, Schopenhauer,--but lost me when he killed off the dog. Again, why take away what seems to be Oliver's only pleasure in life?

It is, of course, possible that Rachman's point was to be disturbing. I can understand that. I'm just not entirely certain that I like being disturbed in this particular way. I'm giving Rachman three stars out five. The book is well-written and I think Rachman has the makings of a very fine story-teller. I would like to see him attempt a more linear story and see what he makes of that.

I read this one primarily for the Take a Chance (3) Challenge--the
Critic's Choice option [from the Top Ten of 2010 as chosen by NY Times Critic Janet Maslin]

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