Posted by: Jeanie F | May 22, 2010

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

When none other than Christopher Buckley gives a first novel a rave review, I sit up and take notice. This is especially true when I am slogging my way through the literary morass of (1)a book that I admire, but do not enjoy and (2)a book club book selection that I neither admire nor enjoy but feel obligated to read. So one Sunday morning I read Buckley’s review in The New York Times and had it on my Kindle in a New York minute! This book is The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman, and Buckley did not steer me wrong.

This is the story of a newspaper – how it came into being and how it confronts the peril imposed by the encroachment of technology on news delivery. However, Rachman’s storytelling is nowhere near as straightforward as that may seem. You have to work for it, but so entertaining and human are the characters you meet along the way that it doesn’t feel at all like an effort.

“The paper,” which is never actually named, is an international English-language newspaper published in Italy. The story of Cyrus Ott, its founder, and his heirs is told chronologically in short, italicized sections throughout the novel. These sections give us the background and history of the paper, but are separated by vignettes that show us the lives of the paper’s staff as they unfold during a single year. Some reviews refer to these vignettes as “short stories,” but I thought they were too closely intertwined – each depending on the information you gathered in others – to stand alone.

The vignettes are named by headlines from late 2006-2007 – the year spanned – which the reader will recognize as real events. Rachman subtly ties the headline to a theme in each character’s life: “Bush Slumps to New Low In Polls,” for example, corresponds with a late-career downturn in the life of the Paris Correspondent, Lloyd Burko. “Global Warming Good for Ice Creams” is a headline that slips by Herman Cohen, the punctilious Corrections Editor, for a good reason.

Each of these vignettes is intermittently hilarious and heartbreaking. The staff of the paper, for the most part, have so little personal awareness that each is destined for the bombshell that inevitably befalls him or her. Rachman handles this, as he does so many of his revelations, in such an efficient manner that when the wallop comes, it really packs a punch. Take, for example, Boyd Ott, the son of founder Cyrus Ott, who wants nothing more than to emulate his father. Predictably, he was destined to fail. We don’t see it coming as Boyd identifies his own boldness, his pride, with that of his father. And then – POW! – we learn that “[Boyd] styled himself a man of the people, as his father had been. But the people mistrusted Boyd, and he in turn despised them.

This is a novel I’ll recommend to friends. I believe that Gregg LaGambina, blogging for The Onion, provides the best summarization:

The Imperfectionists is a lovingly rendered tribute to a increasingly bygone era, and a page-turner for those still in thrall to turning them.

Grade: A


  1. I appreciate your review as I am on a waiting list at my library for a copy of this title (I really need to get a Kindle). Sounds like a great read, hope my copy comes soon!

  2. I hope so, too! I’ll be interested to hear what you think of it (and you should DEFINITELY get a Kindle!).

  3. I downloaded it on my new KOBO e-reader 30 seconds after buying my KOBO and now have recommended it to a journalism class I am in. here is an interview with tom….go to May 21 and to the 34:45 mark

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