By Carolyn Williams
Journalist Tom Rachman’s debut novel “The Imperfectionists” is a triumph. It’s the story of a struggling international English-language daily newspaper based out of Rome. The book is comprised of a series of vignettes, each starring a member of the newspaper’s staff or an auxiliary person involved in the paper’s operation. Heading each chapter are headlines of an article produced in that section, including such entries as “World’s Oldest Liar Dies at 126,” “Global Warming Good for Ice Creams” and “Europeans are Lazy Survey Says.”
The stories themselves are sometimes sarcastic and wry and sometimes poignantly sad, but they are always dynamic, multi-faceted and well-written. The novel begins in Paris with that city’s correspondent, Lloyd Burko, a man on his fourth marriage, estranged from all his children but one. He is struggling to conceal from his disinterested and unfaithful younger wife that he has fallen hopelessly behind in terms of technology. Having become obsolete to the already overstretched paper, he is looking at an old age of dependency upon his son.
Kathleen Solson, the paper’s editor-in-chief, has returned to the paper where she first began as a copy editor. Pegged for success, she spent several years working for a more prominent paper in Washington before taking on the challenge of pulling the old paper back together. Things are spiraling out of control in all aspects of her life, however, as she learns that her husband is having an affair while her attention is turned on the 24-hour-a-day job of keeping the paper from self-destructing. Considering an affair herself, Kathleen turns to her ex-lover from her years prior in Rome, only to be reminded that her policy of putting work first and her no-nonsense attitude, tanked that relationship as well.
Dickens’ Miss Havisham is revisited in Ornella de Monterecchi, the mother of Kathleen’s ex-boyfriend and the paper’s most devoted reader. An eccentric and lonely elderly widow, she reads each edition of the paper from start to finish like a book, taking days at a time and in turn falling more than 10 years behind from the present.
None of these characters get a happily-ever-after. Rachman’s writing reinforces the realities of the field but maintains a sense of levity and a clear love for journalism. All of the stories are artfully intertwined, adding layers of depth to the already intricate separate plots of an eclectic group of individuals. The lead characters from other stories appear casually in those of their fellows, creating the impression of getting to know the paper from the inside out. By the finish of the novel, the reader has explored thoroughly every corner of the offices of the little paper and is emotionally invested in its precariously balanced future.
As a traveling journalist himself, Rachman makes use of his extensive knowledge of the trade, while translating his own prose into a terrific example of contemporary fiction. More than anything, “The Imperfectionists” speaks to the changes the field of journalism has undergone since the advent of new technologies and the reluctant and the painful transitions which such advances inevitably create.