Sunday, August 28, 2011

Book Note: The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

I purchased this book to be a beach read, and it did not disappoint. I am not one to indulge in saucy romance tales at the beach, but I do appreciate having something short and light. The Imperfectionists fit the bill. Set in Rome, Italy, the story line follows the history of an international newspaper through periodic glimpses into the lives of the characters that inhabit the newsroom and business operations.

What made it an ideal beach read was the brevity of the profiles. One review suggested they could each serve as short stories within the scope of the whole, but I am not so convinced they would each be interesting set apart as short stories. Rather, they assumed more of a character sketch of individuals with the history of the newspaper being the common theme. As a reader who typically prefers nonfiction, I found the intertwined biographies to be a pleasant structure. The nuances and insecurities of each character were expertly, if not at some points blatantly, revealed to give depth to each storyline though without the character development expected of a longer piece in a more traditional format. I could start and finish a chapter without feeling compelled to go on and find out “what happened next”, but each chapter launched the story a bit further – effective for spanning decades through days without dying in the details.

Since I am not a common, or honestly even a well-informed, consumer of fiction, I relied on the general description, reviews plastered on the front and back of the cover and a general scan of a few sections before making the purchase. Upon reflection, I could not help but wonder cynically if the generous reviews by The Financial Times, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, had more to do with romantic ideas about the newspaper newsroom than on the book’s literary contribution. Perhaps the reviewers recognized a co-worker in one of the profiles or imagined himself or herself in one of the roles. Perhaps the issues and struggles of managing a newspaper in the digital age or the angst felt at reporting on a situation so much bigger than oneself were familiar subjects and thus more likely to generate appreciative feedback. That thinking doesn’t do much credit to the book itself or the periodicals making the reviews. Overall, the story is well-written; a range of emotions is suitably dredged up by the reader when escaping into the lives of each character – annoyed for one, sad for another and empathetic for someone else; and, the personalities and work issues are not so different from those experienced in other professions. The theme of ambition (or lack thereof) was pervasive, but any other overarching ideas that I should have picked up on if I was reading it for an English class I did not. (This is not the book’s fault necessarily; it is to say that I would need to reread it to provide a more in-depth analysis, but it would not be a book I would do that for – unless required.)

For my brief, rare and uninformed time in a piece of a fiction, it was beach time well-spent. It was a book that pleasantly occupied time on the balcony overlooking the ocean without compelling me in its plot to continue reading and thus miss out on precious family time.

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