The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

9th January 2012

*I received a copy of this book from Random House when I attended a tea there during BEA.

At first glance, Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists is a book about the men and women behind an international newspaper. In and of itself, that’s a great topic. There’s something intensely romantic – to me – about the newspaper, and I have to admit that I loved this book.

However, The Imperfectionists is more than a complex collection of stories. Each gives a glimpse into the life of an editor, journalist, or publisher, while peripherally adding to characters mentioned in other stories and simultaneously telling the story of the newspaper and its origins. Cyrus Ott, in the early 50s, starts an international (and unnamed) English-speaking newspaper to be near a woman he loves. Rachman doles out Ott’s and his subsequent heirs’ stories, as they continue running a paper with a decreasing subscription and an increasingly difficult market.

What Rachman has done I find interesting on a lot of levels. On one hand, his storytelling is similar to Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City in terms of each chapter being told by a different character. The subject matter, on the other hand, is quite different. The Imperfectionists takes a stark look at these characters’ lives – an old man, Lloyd Burko, who once wrote for the paper and is now desperate for work, pitching stories without any success; a middle-aged man, writing obituaries and ducking out of work early to be with his young daughter, Pickle; a news editor who shouts “Vigilance!” and builds up his best friend, only to realize he himself is the bigger man; Ruby, a woman so miserable, she sabotages herself at work but who actually loves her job.

I could easily tell you this book has moments of humor, love, and intense sadness, but the best way I can describe The Imperfectionists is to tell you it is an amazingly human novel. The writing pulls forth the mundane and exalts it, indicating that Rachman finds many aspects of life interesting. No one person stands out; instead, together, they work to make a combination short story collection and novel that impressed me, both in the telling and the writing.

A few of my favorite quotes:

“My past – it doesn’t feel real in the slightest. The person who inhabited it is not me. It’s as if the present me is constantly dissolving.” – Gerda Erzburger, feminist writer, to obituary writer Gopal.

“A couple of months later, Herman receives an email from Jimmy. It is long and rambling, full of philosophizing and poetic citations. Which is another way of saying he’s in splendid spirits with his daughter in Temple, Arizona.

The email, for no reason Herman can articulate, upsets him. He sees no reason to write back, and perhaps that is why.” – Herman Cohen

Other posts:

The New Dork Review of Books

Rhapsody in Books

Newsline Magazine

  • Lovely review! I read this at the beginning of 2011 and thought it was very good. Sometimes these sorts of story-cycle novels just seem like glorified collections, or like an author could not figure out how to put everything together, but I thought Rachman made it feel very organic, and I loved the characters.

    • Thanks so much! And you are so right. I was concerned about that at first but was quickly impressed with the writing and the characters. They were so fully formed, for each having such a short narrative.

  • Wendy

    I also really enjoyed this book. I had a difficult time at first with the different storylines, but it came together in the end. And I agree with your comment about it being a “human” novel. Very well said!!

    • Thank you, and yes, it was the presiding notion I had after finishing it. I’m so glad you enjoyed it as well. It’s one I’ll definitely be recommending.

  • Anonymous

    Newspapers are very romantic. Much more so than the internet, anyway.

    • This is very true.

  • Lorren

    You know, I’ve heard a lot about this book but never felt compelled to add it to my TBR… until I read those quotes. Now it is suddenly looking like something I want to read much more than I did before.

    • Lorren – it’s odd. Most times I don’t feel compelled to post any quotes. Even if I mark them, by the time I review something, I go back and the quotes no longer hold. I’m glad I included them this time.

  • This doesn’t sound like something I’d normally read, but your review has me interested. I may look it up the next time I’m craving something different. Great review!!!

    • Thanks Amy! I went into it blind as there is no description of the book on the back of the copy I have, so I was even more pleasantly surprised.

  • We already discussed this so you know I really enjoyed it, too. My father was a journalist so I grew up romanticizing the newspaper business. I also spent time in a newsroom all through college and briefly afterward. It makes me sad that one day, the pleasure of finding a paper on your doorstep may not be possible anymore.

    You’ve captured this book nicely in your review, and it looks like you’ve convinced others to pick it up!

    • Thanks, Elyse, and yes, it makes me sad too. Movies like All the President’s Men really epitomize the journalism world, and I’d add this book to that queue. Good stuff.

  • Col Reads

    This is quickly moving up my TBR list. I used to work at a newspaper, and everyone tells me I’ll love it. Your review makes me want to read it even more. Thanks!

    • No problem. I hope you read it and that you love it as much as people anticipate. There’s a Q&A in the back that talks about how careful he was to make it true to life because journalists would be the first to tell him if he were off.

  • Andi

    I’ve been on the fence about this one, but given your review it really sounds like something I’d like. Thanks!

    • Andi – knowing your reading tastes, I can’t imagine you not really enjoying this one. The structure is interesting as well. Let me know if you pick it up!

  • Anonymous

    Ok, so I do this thing where I like to save books that I think I am going to love rather than immediately read them. I don’t know why I do this, but in this sense, I am a hoarder. Anyway, I have been hoarding this book ever since it was released because I was so certain that I would love it. And now I read your review and it reaffirms everything about this book that I previously believed and I am even more certain I will love it and I can’t wait to read it! Reading soul sisters for sure! I

    • I’ve done that too. It’s not hoarding, per se; it’s saving a treat. Of course, most of the time, I can’t wait very long. But yes, this book was one I couldn’t believe I didn’t read before now as it has been on my shelf since June!