Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Dea(r)th of News: A Review of Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists

Title: The Imperfectionists
Author: Tom Rachman
Edition: Dial Press Trade Paperback (Paperback, 2011)
Pages: 281
How I Came by This Book: I picked this up from a library book sale a few months ago simply because I liked the cover.

About the Author: "Tom Rachman was born in 1974 in London, but grew up in Vancouver. He studied cinema at the University of Toronto and completed a Master's degree in journalism at Columbia University in New York. From 1998, he worked as an editor at the foreign desk of The Associated Press in New York, then did a stint as a reporter in India and Sri Lanka, before returning to New York. In 2002, he was sent to Rome as an AP correspondent, with assignments taking him to Japan, South Korea, Turkey and Egypt. Beginning in 2006, he worked part-time as an editor at the International Herald Tribune in Paris to support himself while writing fiction. He now lives in London, where he is working on his second novel." (from GoodReads)

Synopsis: "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. 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."

Review: I went into this book with almost no expectations. I saw the cover and read the much-shorter and not-even-really-a blurb on the back and thought, "Huh, this might be a fun, quirky read." What I found instead was a sad character-driven novel where the lives of the characters are unravelling just like the paper they work for. In short, my only expectation was completely off base. 

The Imperfectionists begins with a washed-out, has-been foreign correspondent for an English-language newspaper in Rome living in Paris. From there it follows the lives of the various writers, readers, and editors of the dying paper. Their stories are separate but weave into each other as a character from one story is mentioned in another. You don't realize at first that this is what Rachman is doing but as the novel progresses all of these slightly intermingling stories crash together at the end in a tragic way. 

These are stories of loss, death, depression, madness. Even with the few-and-far-between humorous moments, the overarching mood of the book is sadness. I often felt ill-at-ease, as if I was trespassing on private property or reading someone's diary. Rachman bares these characters, stripping them of any control over their lives and utterly destroying them emotionally--all within the span of about twenty pages. 

There's the woman who is mercilessly teased by her co-workers and who is so incredibly lonely that she pretends to be a woman on a business trip every New Year's Eve so that she can stay at a hotel instead of being home by herself. There is the man whose daughter tragically dies and is forced to face her death through the eyes of a dying woman. There is the woman who thinks she has found a kindred spirit on a plane ride to the states but learns all too late that she is being made a fool of. Each of these characters plays a part in their own story and in other stories; none is left unscarred somehow. 

The writing is often starkly beautiful and the way in which the stories thread together is marvelous, but the depressing tone of the book kept me from fully enjoying it. I think it was the discomfort that I felt intruding into their lives that got me in the end. I wanted to like this novel--and in some ways I did--but by the time I got to the last sentence, I was too overwhelmed by it all to fully appreciate its beauty. 

Maybe it all boils down to my own feelings of sadness, inadequacy, and loss. Maybe even the happiest, most successful person in the world could read it and still come away feeling the same. Who knows? Regardless, the book is well-written and the characters are fleshed out so well in such a short space that it's obvious Rachman is a terrific author. 

I'm giving The Imperfectionists 4 out of 5 Gabriels.


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