Book Look - The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachman
A novel about the staff of a small, international newspaper headquartered in Rome in the 1950s is ordinarily the last place I'd look for authentic character studies. Why pick a setting so strongly associated with universal stereotypes - wisecracking reporters, neurotic editors, cold-hearted publishers, profit-obsessed owners, experience-hardened expat Americans, food-obsessed Italians - if you don't intend to avail yourself of them? Have to wonder if this is a challenge Rachman deliberately set himself in choosing a newsroom as the setting for this collection of short stories, each exploring in penetrating yet authentic detail the character, motives and impulses of one of the newsroom's staff?
The title "The Imperfectionists" is well chosen, as each chapter/character study focuses on how the choices we make in life are seldom idealistic, seldom simple, seldom laudable, seldom "perfect" ... and yet inevitably true to the motives and impulses that shape our fundamental natures. We choose marriage not because we love but because we embrace convention, fear loneliness, need help coping with the challenges of a foreign language; we choose to delude ourselves not because we're ignorant, but because we deliberately choose ignorance; we attempt noble things (establishing newspapers, writing great stories, championing feminist causes) not out of an idealistic sense of duty, but driven by passions infinitely more personal. The portraits that emerge are at once unfamiliar yet authentic, unsentimental yet compassionate, and organically witty without ever lapsing into deliberate irony or sarcasm.
Can understand why this has made all the critics so breathless. What Rachman does, he does splendidly well. He's a lovely writer with the gift of defining characters organically, through dialog and action rather than tedious expository text. Will I remember this book 6 months from now, though? I suspect not. For while the book's theme is deftly, competently, and entertainingly presented, not sure it comes as much of a surprise. The reason it's so easy to empathize with the folks in these stories - even the obnoxious ones - isn't just because Rachman is good at what he does; it's because, like the characters in this book, most of us have all at some point in our lives realized that the choices we make, the choices that define us, are seldom guided by idealism, sense or logic ... but that we are nevertheless powerless to choose any other way.