Book Review: ‘The Imperfectionists’ by Tom Rachman

November 6, 2011 in Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Due to a minor miscommunication on my part, I only had 4 days to read and review Tom Rachman’s debut novel, The Imperfectionists, (instead of the expected 14) for a trade publication.  Unbelievably, I did it in 3.  Does this mean the book is so good that it was unputdownable?  Not quite.  But it was good enough, for the most part.

Tom Rachman is, according to the bio, a (former?) editor and news correspondent who has worked in North America, Europe and currently lives in Rome.  The Imperfectionists is described on the book cover as ‘a wise, funny and moving novel about the people who write and read an international newspaper based in Rome.’  That sounded like a perfect book for someone interested in the day-to-day workings of a newspaper and is writing on a book about inter-office power struggles and relationships.

But as it turns, The Imperfectionists is really more a collection of short stories (11 to be exact) — and it just so happens that the central character in each of these stories works at the same international newspaper.  There is the foreign correspondent, the obituary writer, the business reporter, the copyeditor, the publisher, and so forth.  The only exception is a wealthy old woman who reads the paper on a daily basis.  Occasionally, the characters might cross paths, but it’s never more than a small cameo.

All stories do deal with the newspaper publishing business, but that’s not what they are about at the core.  Rachman’s stories are about the characters and their relationships, the intertwining of their work lives, personal lives and love lives.  If this were a movie it would be kind of like Love Actually, New York, I Love You, or Valentine’s Day — one of those films with a central theme and an ensemble cast.

Rachman does try to thread a narrative through the book by inserting these short, snapshot-like chapters in between the main stories that chronicle the rise and fall of the newspaper.  However, the truth is that these aren’t much more than ‘breathers’ and it would be a stretch to suggest that the book is a single, unified story.

So what was it that kept the pages turning?  For starters, there’s a number of cracker stories.  There’s Winston Cheung, the young ‘stringer’ in Cairo vying for a permanent role, only to have his life turned upside down by a slick, manipulative veteran douchebag (and let’s face it, everybody knows someone like that!).   There’s Ornella De Monterecchi, the abovementioned reader who lives years in the past because she reads each paper cover to cover and does not move on to the next day until she finishes the one from the day before.  And there’s Abbey Pinnola, the CFO who by chance sits next to and ends up falling for the man she just fired — on a cross-Atlantic flight.

On the other hand, I won’t deny that there were a few stories that I struggled to get through (which happens from time-to-time in short story collections or anthologies), but it’s never due to Rachman’s ability to write.  I enjoyed his style — subtle and tight, with efficient but not overwhelming or contrived descriptions and natural, flowing dialogue.  Every now and then I do find that the conversations drag on for longer than they should, which can suck the life out of a short story, but on the whole the good outweighed the bad.  I’d be interested to see what Rachman comes up with next.

3 out of 5