JC: A few weeks ago, JR posted a great review of Tom Rachman’s new novel The Imperfectionists. Now that it’s released you’re no doubt hearing quite a few good things about it. Let me jump on the bandwagon by saying that The Imperfectionists is a fine book, whether it’s his first novel or twentieth.

The Imperfectionists centers around the employees of a small international newspaper based in Rome. Using each chapter as a character sketch, Rachman carves a small history of the paper:

At the behest of his editor, obituary writer Arthur Gopal is sent on assignment to interview an obscure, dying academic as information-gathering for the inevitable. Reading her texts, he becomes enthralled by her work, and despite his personal distaste for her, writes a beautiful elegiac obit for her. Herman Cohen, corrections editor, entertains a houseguest for whom he has had a hero-like worship for forty years. CFO Abbey Pineola finds herself uncomfortably seated next to the man she fired on an overseas flights, yet finds herself unexpectedly attracted to him. The onset of the internet age and the slow but obvious deterioration of the newspaper unveil a hazy future for all.

Rachman writes these scenes and scenarios with an unexpected elegance. He gets beneath the skin of his characters and reveals poignant scars and aches, wit and playfulness. Then he combines what feel like stand-alone stories such that he leaves the reader with a bigger, equally elegant whole.

This book deserves every compliment it receives.


JR: At this point you’re all hearing about The Imperfectionists, or you should be. You can read my review here. As soon as I heard about Tom Rachman and his brilliant debut I contacted him and he jumped at the chance to contribute to our When We Fell in Love series. I’m thrilled to have Mr. Rachman here on the blog, and hope everyone picks up his novel, it will blow you away.

Tom Rachman – When We Fell In Love

Books were spectators at my house, lining the walls of every room, an audience peering down on my childhood: books as thick as my thigh and books as thin as my finger, books on gardening and books on Hitler, books about the brain and books about pain, books featuring hippos and books without any hippos at all.

But I disliked reading; it bored me.

My parents and my sister, by contrast, were besotted. The rustle of turning pages sounded room to room throughout our home in Vancouver. After nightfall, their routes upstairs could be traced by the discarded reading material, stuffed under sofa cushions, splayed on the carpeted stairs, bookmarked by the beds where they slept, presumably dreaming of capital letters and semicolons.

Unfortunately, I was not one of those effortlessly bookish children I encounter now and then who will burn through Middlemarch in an afternoon. I was a slow reader, an unwilling one; hopeless. Occasionally, I took down a volume, lured by a bright color scheme or a title that hinted at gunfights and bloody noses. Instead, I found dry yellow pages, black letters frowning at me.

My family attempted to induce bibliophilia, presenting me on birthdays with all manner of books, which formed a growing stack of guilt by my bedside. (In my memory,The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry is forever wobbling atop the gift pile.)

Ultimately, my father resorted to bribery. On weekends, he drove me to Granville Island market, primed me with pizza and pastries, poured espresso down me, then led me down the seedy streets of Gastown, where heroin addicts staggered out of alleyways, strip bars advertised noontime pint specials, and Vancouver housed its finest used-book shop.

Once safely inside, my father piled volumes onto my outstretched arms, focusing on writers popular during his own reading prime, London of the 1950s to 1960s:Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler; Inside the Whale and Other Essays by George Orwell; Brighton Rock by Graham Greene.

Despite his efforts, however, I remained a reluctant reader.

Then, at age fifteen, I plucked from our shelves a book that had long gazed down upon me but that – due to my recent growth spurt – I could now gaze down upon myself. It was a novel, The Last of the Just, by the French writer André Schwarz-Bart, in a Secker & Warburg edition whose cover, weight and paper-smell are recorded in me still.

I finished it, an uncommon feat in those days. I remember that moment – closing the cover as I lay on the bed, wishing not to speak or to hear speech for some while, encased in the pages still and unready to be pulled from them.

What strikes me now about The Last of the Just is how little I recall of it. I remember its opening sentence – “Our eyes register the light of dead stars” – and I remember the effect of its ending. But hundreds of pages lay between and they only flutter in memory, impressions with no detail.

I haven’t re-read it and would be afraid to, afraid of revising my affection. Instead, I have pursued other books for that same euphoric effect. Here is a random selection I have loved over the years: Enemies, a Love Story by Isaac Bashevis Singer; Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell; Great Expectations by Charles Dickens; To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf; Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh; On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin.

They, and many others, now line the walls of my home in Italy. My fondness for these books, I realize, is directed toward the objects themselves. Arrayed around me, their spines creased where I handled them, each volume is the physical manifestation of what I felt for its contents. They are books quite like those that observed my childhood, and their patience finally converted me.

Jason Rice: It’s a rare book that makes me want to start it again as soon as I’ve turned the last page.  To say I’ve fallen madly in love with The Imperfectionists is an understatement.  Over the last few weeks this debut novel has surprised and thrilled me, never left my side, and somehow renewed my faith in the daily newspaper.  I’ve even stopped myself from reading this book so I could make it last longer.

The Imperfectionists, or the people who I assume to be imperfect, are in fact that real gems of this story. Characters like Lloyd Burko, who gets this story off the ground, and becomes a beacon for the entire cast, and someone I looked back to every few chapters.  What makes this story so engrossing is the different narrators Mr. Rachman deftly weaves together to form a larger tapestry (despite the fact that every editor and agent I’ve ever come across has told me that connected stories don’t sell).  Lloyd Burko is a down on his luck reporter living in Paris. He’s desperate for a story, and rifles through his son’s life to find one.  It’s these quiet moments of professional desperation that made me want to climb inside this book, and take up a permanent residence among these men and women.

Tom Rachman was a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press stationed in Rome.  A fantastic job  by any stretch of the imagination, and he’s worked for the wonderful International Herald Tribune. When I lived in France in 1992, I read that paper every day of the week.  It’s an absolute must read for any American living abroad.

The Imperfectionists will shock a lot of people, not American Psycho shock, but very much like the moments right after the world realized what a great book Then We Came To the End was, and to be honest, Rachman’s novel is as good as that masterpiece. There’s a moment when Abbey who has the wicked nickname, Accounts Payable, is almost convinced that the man she fired is good enough to sleep with, a moment of sorrow, and pity, hers and the readers, and then it’s gone, but you’re left wondering, and saying to yourself; “God damn this is good shit.”  These individual chapters make up the life of the newspaper, and since it’s a Dial Press book, remind me of http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780385335676 by David Schickler.  It’s a perfect comp, but where Schickler sticks with arrested development, Rachman reaches nearly profound levels of realism through humanity. You’ll fall in love with Ruby Zaga, or the strange Winston Cheung, each person is so close that you can feel their breath on your neck.  In the end the people and the story will blow you away, it’s about a struggling International newspaper and (should be a passé thing to write about, with all this internet talk and electronic book nonsense filling up everyone’s time), it’s people; a sad dog, a rabid reader who is ten years behind on her reading of the paper, and Kathleen, oh Kathleen, she’s so good, so right on and who I think is the most serious character in the book. Shit, it’s all serious, it’s prescient, it’s talking about a medium that you and I take for granted, and I for one buried in the sand years ago as being out of touch. Rachman, in his own fluent and vivid ways shows me just how wrong I was to assume that newspapers are dead. Stop what you’re reading, call your Random House rep and get one of these ARC’s. For those of you not in the business, put it on order at your preferred online retailer.