By: Tom Rachman
Format/Source: Paperback; my purchase
Set against the gorgeous backdrop of Rome, Tom Rachman’s wry, vibrant debut follows the topsy-turvy private lives of the reporters, editors, and executives of an international English language newspaper as they struggle to keep it – and themselves – afloat.
Fifty years and many changes have ensued since the paper was founded by an enigmatic millionaire, and now, amid the stained carpeting and dingy office furniture, the staff’s personal dramas seem far more important than the daily headlines. Kathleen, the imperious editor in chief, is smarting from a betrayal in her open marriage; Arthur, the lazy obituary writer, is transformed by a personal tragedy; Abby, the embattled financial officer, discovers that her job cuts and her love life are intertwined in a most unexpected way. Out in the field, a veteran Paris freelancer goes to desperate lengths for his next byline, while the new Cairo stringer is mercilessly manipulated by an outrageous war correspondent with an outsize ego. And in the shadows is the isolated young publisher who pays more attention to his prized basset hound, Schopenhauer, than to the fate of his family’s quirky newspaper.
As the era of print news gives way to the Internet age and this imperfect crew stumbles toward an uncertain future, the paper’s rich history is revealed, including the surprising truth about its founder’s intentions.
This is the second Tom Rachman novel that I’ve read; while this book has been on my shelf longer, I did read his latest novel, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers (review), first. I’ve been curious about this novel ever since it hit paperback–set in Rome, life working for a newspaper.
The Imperfectionists is a curious novel. The story is told through the perspectives of the major employees of the newspaper, each having their own chapter, complete with their experiences, their work, their personal problems, the overarching theme of the newspaper’s gradual decline weaving all of their stories together. Throughout their stories, it’s interesting to see how newspapers fared over the last twenty years with the advent of the internet; some have managed to adapt to the changes by setting up their won websites and garnering a reader base through apps, online subscriptions and the like, while others like this particular newspaper failed due to lack of adaptation coupled with the lack of drive from the board and the publisher to continue with the venture.
The characters themselves are a curious bunch. They’re not exactly the most pleasant, happy lot around: everyone’s got their own personal problems seeping in to their work, into their daily lives. There’s a certain level of emptiness in a lot of their stories: the end of a career, a career or a life heading nowhere, death, infidelity, whathaveyou. Some of these characters come off as cold, no sense of care really, which was interesting in a way as they struggle through their own personal problems, but at the same time some of their stories were less interesting compared to others; towards the end, I just wanted to know whether the newspaper would survive all of its problems or not. But despite of my hot-and-cold feelings towards the individual stories, there are some really simple moments between characters that left me quite sad or moved. For example:
Overall, The Imperfectionists was an interesting read, I’m glad that I got around to reading it. It being set in Rome was cool, but otherwise it didn’t really add to the story except for Kathleen’s chapter with the Berlusconi bits. While the individual stories were either a hit-or-miss for me, it’s an impressive novel with an interesting way of unveiling the story.