Friday, July 22, 2011

Book Review: The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

I read this book for book club, so while it's been very well-reviewed and supposed to be quite literary, I had no desire to pick it up at all before it was assigned. But that is a large part of the point of book club isn't it? Reading books you wouldn't otherwise? And thankfully, this is one of the ones I was forced to read and thoroughly enjoyed!

It is a series of short stories, each narrated by a different character who all work for (well, one is a reader of) an English-language newspaper in Rome that services all of Europe and then some. The stories don't feel like separate short stories though, at least not in the way of Olive Kitteridge. These all take place sequentially, although sometimes time has passed between the chapters, and they're more than loosely linked, as the majority of these characters work together daily. The narrator of one section is likely to appear in passing in a later chapter, or even be a minor character.

The chapters are very deftly written, three-dimensional even with only a few telling details to draw them. They are compelling with very real, ordinary, relatable problems. They all have the common problems of working at a dying newspaper in a dying industry, and all being ex-pats, out of their element in Rome, but of course each character has their own personal issues and concerns.

I really liked this book, whipping through it in just two days. One quibble I have though is with the tons and tons (and tons) of glowing reviews plastered all over the book - many of them refer to the book as funny or humorous. There were two chapters - Winston Cheung's and Ornella de Monterecchi - that I found pretty funny but many of the rest were actually quite depressing. Several dealt with extreme loneliness, there's a death or two, some infidelity, and disillusionment sprinkled throughout. In fact, I can think of only one happy character - Herman Cohen - and he too has a bit of an issue, as he has imagined his best friend to be a Superman of sorts, and instead he's quite ordinary to the point of being nearly boring. But even when Herman realizes the extent that he has put his friend on a pedestal, his world doesn't come crashing down, and he's not lost his friend or made wretched when he discovers the extent of his self-deception. He accepts it, and thanks mostly to his very happy home life, just moves on.

Now the depressing things throughout don't make me want to cry or anything - they're often handled at a distance (particularly in the case of Arthur Gopal) and also they're presented in a way that shows the universality of many of these problems, so they're not Great Tragedies but instead, daily disappointments. And the very realism of the workplace and the characters make them all very accessible and sympathetic. I found it a fast read and hard to put down.

I bought this book at B&N.


B said...

I went back and forth with this one at the bookstore the other day - picking it up, putting in back. Needless to say I didn't purchase it, but next time I will. Nice review!

Jen said...

Hmmm... reading what you had to say about this book was really interesting, but I'm not sure if it's my cup of tea. But, it sounds like it could be a good book group choice. :)

Carin Siegfried said...

@JO, I must say it was one of the best discussions we've ever had. Starting talking about it a couple of times while we were still snacking in the kitchen, and one of the longest discussions, too. Everyone in book club liked the book.

Christy said...

I agree - definitely not a 'funny' book. In addition to the loneliness, disillusionment, etc., two or three characters get humiliated, as well. Herman Cohen's was one of my favorite stories as well as the one about the Editor-in-Chief. I enjoyed the book and it is a fast read. And it does seem like it would be a great book discussion book.