Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman

Dial Press, 2010
269 pp

The Imperfectionists made an appearance on several "notable books of 2010" lists published just before Christmas buying season begins in earnest. Normally I don't pay much attention to them, but this one showed up on so many that I was intrigued enough to pull it off the shelf and begin reading, and soon realized why it's mentioned in so many places.

The title reflects the group of people in this book, whose stories are told in eleven individual chapters that begin with their own little mini-headlines.  The backdrop of the book is an English-language  newspaper, "based in Rome and sold around the world," started in the 1950s by a wealthy American businessman. It drained money, but somehow managed to stay alive, and in the late 1970s and early 1980s the paper actually became profitable.   Most but not all of the characters work at the paper, although all are bound together because of it.  The story of the newspaper and the Ott family that owns it also weaves throughout the individual vignettes, binding the book together into a coherent whole as the paper, "the "daily report on the idiocy and the brilliance of the species," heads toward its eventual decline.

The characters are believable -- the reader follows the lives of the expat staffers: editors who come and go: the accountant, the feature writers and the reporters of the paper, all who present a certain face in the often-cutthroat world of the newsroom but who have their own human flaws and quirks as individuals, especially at home. They are, at the heart of it all, just people, complete with resentments, secrets and other qualities which make them human and ultimately imperfect. One of the characters is Oliver Ott, a grandson of the original owner Cyrus, who gets on better with his Bassett hound Schopenhauer than he does with people.  There's also the story of a reader, Ornella de Monterecchi, who began reading the news in the late 1970s when her husband was posted to Riyadh as the Italian ambassador. She was kept back in a "guarded zone for Westerners," and got so she took up reading the news, slowly, each and every article until she'd finished each edition.  Her husband would talk to her about events that she hadn't seen in the paper yet, but since she hadn't read about it, she didn't want him to bring anything up, beginning her "slow drift from the present:"
One year into her newspaper reading, she was six months behind. When they returned to Rome in the 1980s, she remained stranded in the late 1970s. When it was the 1990s outside, she was just getting to know President Reagan. When planes struck the Twin Towers, she was watching the Soviet Union collapse. Today, it is is February 18, 2007, outside this apartment. Within, the date remains April 23, 1994.

At the same time, the book manages to connect present to past and vice versa -- for example, the characters weave in and out of others' vignettes over the years, as does the story of the paper itself;  and then there are the changes in technologies as old ones are made obsolete that reflect a changing world outside of the newsroom. There's much more; these are only a couple of examples. 

Watching the paper's inevitable decline is really rather sad both on a human level and an institutional one; the author also brings up here and there throughout the novel that the changing face of the news industry over the years in general  is making it difficult for newspapers (and those in the industry as well) to stay afloat and compete as they used to in the past.  There's also a hovering feeling of human melancholy that pervades throughout, but there are some genuinely funny moments as well. It's very obvious that the author knows what he's talking about, bringing a sense of realism into the story that is unquestionable.

There's so much more to this novel, and it is well worth the time to examine it for yourself, but the bottom line here is that I really liked this book and would definitely recommend it.


  1. I've seen this on some lists too, Nancy. With your recommendation, it's going on my TBR!

  2. I am please you enjoyed this one Nancy - I have it on order from the Book Depository!


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