The life and death of a small newspaper is the focus of Tom Rachman’s first novel The Imperfectionists. A wealthy businessman decides to start an international English-language paper in Rome. As its custodians, he installs a married couple, Betty and Leo. It is evident that he and Betty have history. The reader assumes he has another motive.
Rachman has laid out his book so that half the chapters read like short stories. Each of these chapters contains a new character and is prefaced by a somewhat sensationalist headline. The paper has been around for fifty years by this time, and is foundering. The other chapters focus on the early years when Betty and Leo were at the helm. Ott makes infrequent, mysterious appearances and one is meant to wonder what it’s all about.
Rachman’s writing is quick and engaging. The dialogue runs smoothly and reveals quantities about the speaker. The ostensible link between characters is the newspaper, but with each additional character that connection grows deeper and more complex. Loneliness emanates from these people, as do misplaced ambitions and resignation.
The title foreshadows flaws in the characters personalities. And one by one they exhibit quite a range. They are bitterly restrictive, selfish, rich, pathetic, cruel. Rachman fails to explore the depths of these characteristics, and an attribute that might have been one facet of a personality, becomes its bulk.
Little is done to evoke either the Rome of fifty years previous or its current incarnation. The newspaper’s staff is, almost across the board, removed from the Italian life. Rachman’s decision to elide the complexities of where his characters are, is a further shortcoming of the novel.
The male figures in the novel are constructed with a much steadier hand. The women wither beneath their imperfections. Hardy, the first woman introduced, is filled with neuroses: body image, self-esteem, daddy issues. Her eating disorder is an integral part of who she has become and, as is so often the case in fiction, it is used as a casual detail. Rachman joins a legion of male and female authors who slip in anorexia or bulimia as an aside. The lack of comprehension is evident in the omission of serious examination.
I had tired of the cast by the end and was surprised to find myself entranced by an airplane tryst. The location is wonderfully tantalizing for its impermanence and its suggestion of adventure. Abby Pinnola is the only woman who is pitch perfect. Crotchety and resigned to the 11-hour flight, she is humanized by her recently fired co-worker, Dave. The two of them have experienced the disappointment of Italy. Italians spend their lives as a large family, by blood or bond, and neither was able to find a niche. The delightful scene that emerged from accidental proximity threatened to redeem if not salvage the novel. The eventual dissolution into petty revenge enraged me.
While I was initially enchanted by the light accessibility of Rachman’s prose, the casual, cruel nature of the his characters imperfections wore me out.