The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman


If you just want a quick “bottom line,” here it is: read this book. It is so good. Let me warn you, however–it is not a novel in the traditional sense, but rather a series of vignettes taking place in or about the same Rome-based English language newspaper (think International Herald Tribune) at different times, with some characters from each chapter popping up as bit players or as the main attraction of other chapters.

This bothered me at first because I thought I was reading a traditional novel, but also, and more to the point, the writing captured me immediately, and I was so drawn into the first story that I wanted more. Once I realized the structure of the book, however, I went with it and just loved it.

So, rather than review each plot or character, let me say that Tom Rachman can write. The characters, the plots, the themes, the descriptions, the metaphors, everything is a pleasure. Loosely, the time period covers from 1953, when wealthy businessman Cyrus Ott decides to found an international newspaper in Rome, and progresses through to 2007, with Ott’s grandson Oliver at the helm.

The structure of alternating chapters charts the ravages of time and progress on the paper itself, followed by a chapter that illuminates the (sometimes ravaged) lives of those who work for it. Rachman is so good at drawing his characters that you feel you know them in the short time you’re with them, and you also get a feel for what it’s like to be a journalist. Yikes!

Along with the superb characters and their stories is the setting of Rome, a place where I have been but I don’t know well. Rachman knows it well and seems to love it; I was reminded of Ian McEwan’s treatment of London in Saturday. The Imperfectionists made me want to go to Rome!

I highly recommend this book. It’s compelling, it’s clever, it’s original, and it’s a darn-tooting good read. Is it a good choice for a book club? Well, I think it could be tricky because of its structure, but if you have a group that really concentrates and will sit and draw connections between all the vignettes, then it could work. If you have a chatty club that doesn’t focus well or have structured discussions, then I’d suggest you choose a more traditional novel.

Tell me what you think about The Imperfectionists. And Tom Rachman, if you’re reading this, please write another book soon!

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