Monday, February 10, 2014
Perfect, by Rachel Joyce
Random House, 2014
arc - thank you to the publisher for my copy
"It was all because of a small slip in time, the whole story."
When Rachel Joyce's The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry first came out a couple of years back, I bought a copy, read it, and wasn't very fond of it at all. So when I received an ARC of Perfect that I hadn't requested, I was a little skittish. However, since I have this strange need to read all ARCs that are sent to me (even unrequested), and it's been sitting here for a while, I picked it up last night and started reading. By about page 18, I was completely hooked, and I stayed that way pretty much until I finished it. That says a lot, since I normally don't really like these kinds of novels. This one I just couldn't put down. It's a very well-written story that explores how just one moment of time turns ordinary on its head, after which, there is no going back.
Briefly, the novel begins in 1972, the year that two "leap" seconds were "added to time," since "time was out of joint with the movement of the Earth." One day Byron's mother Diana is running late getting Byron and his sister Lucy off to school, and decides to take a shortcut through a dangerous neighborhood. In the thick fog, something happens on the way that will change everything; the problem is that only Byron notices it. He feels a need to set things right -- and in doing so, confides in his friend James. Together they come up with a plan they call "Operation Perfect," one they believe they will help protect Diana. But, as they will eventually discover, there are some things that no one can control, no matter what. In a parallel narrative that weaves through the story of Byron and his family, there is another story, the details of which I don't want to divulge; suffice it to say that both come together in a most surprising way at the end.
The best part of this book lies in the story of Byron's family life, especially about the character of Diana. From outside everything looks perfect -- the family lives in a beautiful Georgian-style home, the children go to a posh private school, Diana has the right set of friends, is great with her kids, runs her home efficiently, and is married to Seymour, a banking executive. She's wonderful with Byron's friend James as well; he describes her as Perfect, the code word for their plan. On closer inspection, though, Seymour comes home only on weekends; he's bought the place for its secluded location, and when he's home, he spends most of the time locked in his study rather than spending any sort of quality time with the family. His summer vacation is spent with co-workers rather than with his family. He buys Diana just the right clothes, the best car, and is happiest when she tells him how envious the other mothers in her set are. He talks to her daily, and with most every call comes the question of whether or not she is alone at the house. Diana is from a different sort of life, but she's bought into this one, marrying Seymour after only two months of knowing him. Eventually, the main event around which the story is built will be a life-changing one for Diana, who not only becomes caught up in her own guilt, but also comes to an understanding about the life she's living.
I'm not a clever genius when it comes to picking apart literature, but it seems to me that part of what the author is saying here is that there are factors like class, economic status, the expectations of others, and in the case of one character, mental illness, that put constraints on who people really are underneath it all. I think also she's asking us to consider how people get to where they are; that influences from the past and decisions that were made at certain moments all have consequences in the future. There are a number of philosophical reflections about the nature of time that run through the book, all quite eloquently expressed. Rachel Joyce can definitely write credible characters; they're people that you can't help but react to in one way or another, and she sustains her excellent characterizations throughout the novel. The way she creates these people is only one aspect of her writing ability -- she also creates the most beautiful descriptions, especially pertaining to the natural world. There really was not too much I did not like about this book -- once in a while there were a few spots that sort of dragged (for example, one character's visit to a psychic), and I felt that the ending was too brief, and for me, just not in keeping with the tone of the rest of the story.
This novel is, in a word, tragic. It's not a novel for people who love happy endings or upbeat stories. It's very dark and at times downright depressing, frankly right up my alley. The book does end on an optimistic note, but considering everything that came before, it really isn't enough to qualify as a happy ending. Maybe it's more of a "happier than it could have been" finish; at least that's how I feel about the very brief section concluding the novel. Now scanning reader reviews, I see that reactions to this book are a mixed bag -- some people couldn't get past the first few chapters, some felt it was too depressing, some were disappointed because it was not like her previous book, while others raved about it. I really liked and got caught up in this novel, and would definitely recommend it. A bit of advice -- there are reasons for everything that happens in this novel, so take your time and read it slowly.