The Imperfectionists

So... I'm telling you now that my sudden and vehement dislike of Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists is totally irrational and cannot be defended with any argument that paints me as a level-headed reviewer. Up until approximately five pages from the end of the novel, I would have given this a three-and-a-half-out-of-five star review... not necessarily because I enjoyed every single moment of the novel, but because I thought it was an interesting look at the fascinating and rather endangered industry of newspaper publication.

Then a dog was killed and I'm sorry, but I immediately experienced a flash-back to my six-year-old self, uncontrollably sobbing because a story I was reading started with the drowning of a kitten. It's a horrific, staggering moment and I started to worry that I might actually cry into my scarf, standing on the subway in rush hour, attracting covert glances from other winter-clad commuters, while some child in a stroller would stage whisper, "Mommy, why is that lady crying?" Thankfully, I held it together, but my ability to enjoy any part of the novel had vanished.

My significant other laughed at me when I said this, then realized I was serious, but I yield to you the same points I yielded to him. Yes, I understand that the author didn't actually kill a real-life dog. Yes, I understand that the killing of the dog is supposed to be a horrific and heart-breaking moment (even if it's totally unnecessary). No, the act of killing the dog was not itself described, but rather, simply the fact/means of it stated. But because it was in there at all, my opinion of the book plummeted and I just cannot recommend this to anyone in good conscience. You see what I mean? It doesn't matter for me that up until then, I was thinking mildly positive things about the work. I know this is ludicrous and I know that I can read about people dying without batting an eyelash. Kids can die and I wince (like any normal person), but there's just a line a writer can't cross for each one of us and mine happens to be furry. I'm a terrible, unacceptably biased reviewer and I'm sorry.

The Imperfectionists, aside from being a novel where a dog is murdered, focuses on the employees of an English-language newspaper based out of Rome. The newspaper in the present day is clearly failing, but the employees trudge on, putting out the paper every day under increasing amounts of stress. Told in a series of snapshot stories that each focus on a different person, the stories weave through their lives to show private agonies and professional failures. There's very little happiness here (though perhaps a few small victories are recounted) as we read about the editors, publishers, and reporters that have had their lives changed by the paper. It covers the entire lifespan of the paper -- from its founding after World War II to its modern-day closure -- and while most of the characters live in the present time, there are short glimpses back at the lives of its previous employees.

While reading The Imperfectionists, I found myself recalling Joshua Ferris's And Then We Come to the End, another novel that follows several employees of a company that's going under. Even before the dog incident, I would say I far preferred And Then We Come to the End, and I'm betting that Rachman had read that one. Ferris is a far better writer than Rachman, who I felt relied rather heavily on the emotions stirred simply by the facts of the situation -- the decline of newspapers (which most, if not all, literate people are somewhat saddened by) and job loss. The writing itself seemed on the more positive side of mediocre (inoffensive? passable?), but still made me feel that this novel was overwhelmingly over-rated in the praise I've seen bandied about.

What The Imperfectionists *does* have is the benefit of being set in Rome. Having been in Rome a few months ago, I was pleased by the frequent mentions of specific places and neighborhoods, which allowed me to remember the twisting streets and odious traffic. I was surprised no mention was made of vespas. Given that this is a novel where it's clear things will Not End Well, it's to be expected that the tone will be relatively serious -- though there are several funny moments, even if they are often of the black humor or cringe-worthy variety. These are not happy people, by and large, and the turmoil in their lives both inside and outside of the office reflects this. A large number of tragic things happen in the course of the novel (tragic things are, after all, much more newsworthy than happy things), though they usually consist of what would be private gossip and never something printable (save for a few individual deaths). Children die, relationships are shattered, betrayals are engineered, and tempers are lost... the last item happening practically on every page. There's a pervading sense of loss... lost leads, stories, and profits... lost loves, friends, and children... lost innocence, lost opportunities, and lost dreams... and, of course, lost jobs.

Unless you're the wallowing type, I wouldn't recommend this for anyone who's recently lost a job. Nor would I really recommend this as a great "set in Italy" novel, though I did enjoy the conjuration of the city. And, it might go without saying, I wouldn't recommend this to those who are overly-sensitive to violence against animals. (It really just comes in out of the blue, folks. I'm not this crazy all the time.) If you have none of these problems and you can overlook the so-so writing, then I hope that you enjoy the novel, as it shows a certain amount of promise on the part of Tom Rachman. (Though perhaps I'm thinking that because the novel's already been optioned by Brad Pitt and that certainly can't hurt one's career.) The Imperfectionists inspires thought (even if I can't quite call it "thoughtful") and has glints of wry humor that keep the reader afloat in this portrait of a declining industry... I just wish the loyal, harmless dog would have made it to a really nice farm where he could chase rabbits.

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