Book 5 of 100—Tom Rachman, The Imperfectionists

Okay, I had to take a little time out from reading and writing book reviews to get a few final things in order and then have a baby, but now I’m back with some thoughts on Tom Rachman’s really stellar book and, hopefully in the next day or two (if I can successfully take advantage of nap time), some notes on the amazing and magical Laura van den Berg as well.

Rachman’s debut novel, which follows the reporters and employees of an international English-language newspaper in Rome, is really excellent. I read this book in two all-night blocks between midnight and six in the morning while almost constantly breastfeeding a week-and-a-half-old baby who has her days and nights very confused. So, I was grateful for such an enjoyable distraction. (My new daughter is awesome, but being awake all night is not my favorite life activity.)

Each chapter of The Imperfectionists offers an intimate glimpse into the personal life of someone from the paper, with short vignettes in-between that piece together the story of the paper’s original founder and publisher, Cyrus Ott, and the subsequent takeover of his son, Boyd, and then grandson, Oliver. The full realization of life in Rome falls a little short, but otherwise the chapters feel mostly complete and self-contained. They could almost stand alone as short stories, but they leave just enough untold that in order to get the full richness of the work, each chapter needs the others in order to be completely satisfying.

What I like the most about this novel is that it’s not beautifully written and is still absolutely great. (Which is not to say that it’s not well written, just that there was not a single point when I read a sentence and then stopped to think, Wow, lovely.) My favorite pieces of writing are usually ones that successfully create a strong story through gorgeous prose (think Karen Russell or Lorrie Moore), but Rachman’s book somehow doesn’t need pretty sentences—his more straightforward narrative is realistic and humorous and that works even better for the particular story he’s telling. The novel is entertaining, engaging, interesting, hilarious, and heartbreaking all at once, and this supplies plenty of momentum to keep the reader turning the pages.

Rachman’s writing is impressive in how much sympathy he manages to elicit for each of his characters, not all of them likable, especially when each has a relatively small space in which to develop. The chapters devoted to Arthur Gopal and Craig Menzies are especially heartwrenching, and I found Hardy Benjamin and Herman Cohen to be two of the most enjoyable protagonists. Truly though, each chapter is excellent, and Rachman’s account of journalism and the newspaper business is approached in an honest, relatable, and unsentimental way that I think greatly serves his book. The ending feels anti-climactic and thus a bit unsatisfying, but this is not a criticism of Rachman’s writing, since the conclusion of his novel is both realistic and appropriate. All in all, this was an incredibly great read.

Read it? Leave some thoughts below.