The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman

The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman

The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman is not just an exquisitely crafted gem of a book – it’s a series of exquisitely crafted gems that each stand and glimmer gorgeously on their own, but have considerable additional power and depth arranged together in one elegant setting.

The book serves up a connected series of chapters or short stories about the people running and contributing to, with varying degrees of effectiveness and dedication, an international English-language newspaper in Rome. The main stories are set in the near present, but each story concludes with a chronological series of sharp snippets tracing the founding of the paper back in the 1950s. In addition to the particular personal or professional challenges of the central character of each chapter, there is a strong undercurrent of the overall challenges of a news organization contending (or pointedly not contending) with social, cultural and technological changes in news gathering and consumption.

Rachman’s own background as a former foreign correspondent with Associated Press gives The Imperfectionists’ clear and confident industry insights. These are coupled with Rachman’s formidably acute emotional sensitivity, gracefully understated and all the more powerful for it. With just a few brush strokes, Rachman captures the essence of each of his wide range of characters, and makes even the supporting players in each vignette well-rounded and memorable. Gerda Erzberger, the aging feminist writer who appears in obituary writer Arthur Gopal’s poignant sequence, is a standout. With just a few words, she becomes a striking presence who adds resonance to Arthur’s heartwrenching story.

Rachman combines his subtle and unforgettable character portraits – much deeper than just character sketches – with often surprisingly riveting storylines. Resolutions range from the comic to the tragic to even the vaguely menacing, but they all ring true as they are grounded in soundly believable people and circumstances.

The fact that this is Rachman’s first novel (or collection, if you prefer to view it that way) makes this reader both impatient and slightly wary of what will come next from him. The prospect of more finely honed delights like The Imperfectionists is delicious, but has he set the bar impossibly high for himself? I’m certain I’m one of many readers eager to find out.

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