The Imperfectionists

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Overview

One of most acclaimed books of the year, Tom Rachman's debut novel follows the topsy-turvy private lives of the reporters and editors of an English-language newspaper in Rome.
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Overview

One of most acclaimed books of the year, Tom Rachman's debut novel follows the topsy-turvy private lives of the reporters and editors of an English-language newspaper in Rome.
Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

Louis Bayard
The Imperfectionists is about what happens when professionals realize that their craft no longer has meaning in the world's eyes…and that the only people who really understand them are on the same foundering ship, and that, come to think of it, they really loved that damn ship for all it made their lives hell…Rachman is a fine observer and a funny writer—and a writer who knows how to be funny in character.
—The Washington Post
Christopher Buckley
This first novel by Tom Rachman, a London-born journalist who has lived and worked all over the world, is so good I had to read it twice simply to figure out how he pulled it off. I still haven't answered that question, nor do I know how someone so young…could have acquired such a precocious grasp of human foibles. The novel is alternately hilarious and heart-wrenching, and it's assembled like a Rubik's Cube. I almost feel sorry for Rachman, because a debut of this order sets the bar so high.
—The New York Times Book Review
Janet Maslin
Mr. Rachman, a former journalist, knows and loves the myopia of his old profession, the gallows humor of its practitioners and the precariousness of the business to which they devote their lives. Armed with this knowledge and somehow free of the fashionable diffidence that too often plagues fiction about the workplace, he has written a rich, thrilling book that is both love letter to and epitaph for the newspaper world…The Imperfectionists is a splendid original, filled with wit and structured so ingeniously that figuring out where the author is headed is half the reader's fun. The other half comes from his sparkling descriptions not only of newspaper office denizens but of the tricks of their trade, presented in language that is smartly satirical yet brimming with affection.
—The New York Times
Library Journal
At the Caffe Greco in Rome, circa 1953, Atlanta financier Cyrus Ott makes an offer that can't be refused. He will establish an international English-language newspaper to be run in Italy by Betty, the woman he once loved, and her husband, Leo, a hack writer for a Chicago daily. Within the building's walls an entire history of the print news business plays out over a 50-year span as writers, editors, and accountants grow in professional stature, squander their reputations, and fade into obsolescence. A former editor for the Paris branch of the International Herald Tribune, Rachman makes outstanding use of his credentials to place readers in the center of a newsroom so palpable one can hear the typewriters clacking and feel the uncomfortable undercurrent of professional jealousy among the writers jockeying for position. Navigating the minefields of relationships, parenthood, loneliness, and failure, each realistically imperfect character, developed through intimate, candid detail, becomes a story unto himself (or herself). VERDICT With its evocative Italian setting and its timely handling of an industry in flux, this polished, sophisticated debut can be relished in one sitting or read piecemeal as a satisfying series of vignettes linked by historical references to the Ott family empire. Buy it, read it, talk it up. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 10/1/09.]—Sally Bissell, Lee Cty. Lib. Syst., Ft. Myers, FL
Kirkus Reviews
An English-language newspaper headquartered in Rome brings together a strongly imagined cast of characters in journalist Rachman's first novel. Lloyd Burko used to be a stringer living in Paris. He's still in Paris, but now he's just an impoverished former journalist who pretends to have a computer and whose latest wife has moved in with the guy across the hall. Arthur Gopal is languishing as an obituary writer until a death in his own life enables his advancement by erasing his humanity. Hardy Benjamin is a business writer, savvy and knowledgeable about corporate finance but utterly hapless in romance. What they have in common is the never-named paper, whose history is doled out in brief chapters beginning in 1953. The novel's rich representation of expatriate existence surely benefits from the author's experiences as an AP correspondent in Rome and an editor at the International Herald Tribune in Paris; his thoroughly unglamorous depictions of newsroom cubicles and editorial offices will resonate with anyone who's had a corporate job. But, while the newspaper is its unifying factor, the narrative's heart beats with the people who work there. Rachman's ability to create a diverse group of fully formed individuals is remarkable. Characters range from a kid just out of college who learns the hard way that he doesn't want to be a reporter, to an Italian diplomat's widow. Some are instantly sympathetic, others hard to like. Each is vivid and compelling in his or her own way. The individual stories work well independently, even better as the author skillfully weaves them together. Cameo appearances become significant when informed by everything the reader already knows about a character whoflits in and out of another's story. The novel isn't perfect. The interpolated chapters about the paper's past aren't very interesting; the final entry ends with a ghastly shock; and the postscript is too cute. Nevertheless, it's a very strong debut. Funny, humane and artful. Agent: Susan Golomb/Susan Golomb Agency
From the Publisher
“Spectacular.”—The New York Times
 
“Magnificent.”—Seattle Post Intelligencer
 
“Beguiling.”—The Washington Post

“So good I had to read it twice simply to figure out how he pulled it off. I still haven’t answered that question, nor do I know how someone so young . . . could have acquired such a precocious grasp of human foibles. The novel is alternately hilarious and heart-wrenching.”—Christopher Buckley, The New York Times Book Review

“Marvelous . . . a rich, thrilling book . . . a splendid original, filled with wit and structured so ingeniously that figuring out where the author is headed is half the reader’s fun.”—Janet Maslin, The New York Times
 
“Each chapter is so finely wrought that it could stand alone as a memorable short story. Slowly, the separate strands become entwined and the line characters have drawn between their work and home lives is erased. . . . Funny, poignant, occasionally breathtaking.” —Financial Times

“Superb . . . Rachman delivers word portraits with all the verisimilitude of some of those masters hanging in the museums of Rome. He’s that good.”—The Plain Dealer
 

“Deftly written and sharply observed . . . Even if you’ve never set foot in a newsroom, The Imperfectionists proves a delight . . . It’s impossible not to like—this is masterful stuff.”—The Philadelphia Inquirer

The Barnes & Noble Review

"Write what you know" is an unattributed admonition that has brought forth many a bumper crop of tight-leashed, tarmac-trapped first novels. Tom Rachman must have had that dire warning against over-excursioning in view at all times, tattooed on his screen saver.

Rachman is a journalist. He is, in fact, a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism, has served as a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press, and worked as an editor at the International Herald Tribune. In his debut novel, The Imperfectionists, there are no unearned imaginative flights, no indulgent Icarus risks. He reports scrupulously on a world he knows: the messy lives and staccato decline of journalists and journalism, and their reciprocal failures, flaws, and fulminations. Far from perfect -- Rachman has given himself an eponymous out -- it is a solid, smart book of humbly restrained ambition.

The Imperfectionists weaves together the birth, tiny peak, and lurching demise of an English-language newspaper in Rome and the self-destructive empire of the journalists who mess up their lives as they grind out their stories -- all of them bound by a common, fatal romantic attachment to the craft. Indeed, it's a shared world of immolation; the newspaper, till the end, never has a website.

The paper, which is unnamed -- allowing it to function both as a character and a symbol -- was founded in the middle of the last century by Cyrus Ott. Ott, a vaguely Charles Foster Kane-ish industrialist, is somehow inspired to create "an international English-language newspaper. Based in Rome and sold around the world." His motivation is revealed at the end, but we have our earlier suspicions.

The paper's history, and the Ott family's saga, are told through a series of quick, italicized introductions to each chapter. It's a device that gives the novel a supple tension; stitch them all together and they represent a narrative through-line of the newspaper's life, beginning in 1953 and ending in 1997, when the paper is put out of its decaying misery and majesty.

Following each of these somewhat breathless set-pieces are chapters that roll out the newspaper's cast. Each of them is titled with a headline that speaks in newspaperese, with a corresponding byline. There are 11 of them, clever conceits like "Bush Slumps to New Low in Polls" by Paris Correspondent Lloyd Burko, and "The Sex Lives of Islamic Extremists" by Cairo Stringer -- Winston Cheung.

The risk of a novel about journalists is that there are so many default archetypes that the characters end up as clones, barely if at all genetically modified. Rachman takes the bait, and we've got a procession of biscotti-cutter characters. Spouses cheat, dreams are beached. No one gets what he wants; careers that are loathed end up with a shimmery beauty only when they are lost or threatened. There's the burned-out Paris stringer Lloyd Burko, whose younger wife seeks sexual companionship with their neighbor. There's the naïve stringer, the rogue foreign correspondent, the penny-pinching number-cruncher.

And there's the corpulent copy editor, Herman Cohen, who has served in every editorial role over 30 years and takes perverse satisfaction in compiling an internal document called "Why?" "a monthly internal newsletter in which he decants his favorite blunders from the paper." Rachman, like many others, is a designated mourner of lost standards. Herman loves the paper despite, or perhaps because of, its imperfections; I wish Rachman rose to that noble sentiment better than this flat book-flap prose: "To his mind, it was the publication that a weathered novelist or a spy might fold under his arm."

Many of these chapters are glumly predictable and lazily written. Descriptions are largely nouns on the move: "bicycles huddle," "weeds clamber," "light slices." Rachman's character descriptions are mostly 2x4 thuds. "No matter the time of day, Menzies is at his desk. The man has nothing in his life but news."

Rachman also struggles with the omniscient narrator technique, injecting value judgments like a medieval priest bestowing indulgences. He has a fondness for the cheap aphorism: "If history has taught us anything … it is that men with mustaches must never achieve positions of power." His dialogue can be clumsy and veer into too easy wit: "Hardy is on a diet that started, roughly, at age twelve. She's thirty-six now and still dreaming of butter cookies."

But sometimes Rachman finds his voice and stretches. Arthur Gopal, an obituary writer, journeys to Switzerland to interview a dying feminist icon. While he's away his young daughter is killed in an accident. The doppelgangers of death are beautifully handled. As is Gopal's awkward return to the newsroom and the curious comfort its sad spiral gives him: "Several cubicles are empty nowadays, the former occupants long retired but never replaced, their old Post-its fluttering whenever windows open." Abandoned Post-its. Write what you know.

Eventually, Gopal's long and loving obituary is shrunk to a column because of an editorial decision to feature a novelty story -- the death of a serial exaggerator. "World's Oldest Liar Dies at 126" is the sadly arch title of the chapter, at once mocking tabloidism while underscoring the tragedy of Gopal's own experience with life cut short. It gives me hope that Rachman can learn to live with the elliptical, to bury the lede.

Meanwhile, these personal agonies track against the parallel writhing of the newspaper industry. This won't be news to most readers, but Rachman treats it like a business magazine feature. "Newspapers were spiraling downward," he writes. "Competing entertainments abounded, from cellphones to video games, from social-network sites to online porn. Technology was not merely luring readers; it was changing them." Rachman, meet Pound: Old Ezra wrote "Literature is news that stays news." Not "Literature is old news that stays old."

Over time, the Ott family starts to fall apart. Its reputation is sullied by corruption, fraud, toxic spills. Money grows tight. Eventually, they send Oliver Ott, the fragile and weak-kneed grandson of the founder, who was useless in any of the family's other holdings, to run the newspaper. But Oliver never shows up for work, preferring to rattle around as a kind of Oscar Wildean dilettante in the long-shuttered mansion where Cyrus had lived and died. Oliver's comfort and confidante is his beagle Schopenhauer, and he speaks directly to him, the soliloquies serving as clumsy narrative exegesis. In one scene, the genetically pallid heir, who has never read a single issue, uses the paper as a placemat for his pet. "Once the plate is clean, Oliver scrunches up the paper, specked with gravy and goblets of gristle." There's a lot of this dramatic overkill.

Finally, subvention is no longer possible. The Ott board forces Oliver to show up and tell the employees the ride is over. He trembles at the thought and brings his dog for companionship, although he leaves him outside the conference room. The best he can muster is "I'm totally useless at this sort of thing -- they shouldn't have given me the job in the first place." When he's finished with his task, he rushes out of the room, only to find a limp Schopenhauer, his neck twisted by an embittered employee.

Like the crawl in a movie that is "based on a true true story," the final italicized chapter tells us what happens to all the characters. Everyone is scattered -- to a lobbying job, to primate research, back to journalism in America, to international finance. Arthur Gopal "to everyone's surprise … got the most prestigious job, moving to New York as a reporter for a major newspaper." The device is too tidy by far; nothing in this book is left to the imagination.

The Imperfectionists never surprises. By the time Oliver stumbles upon a letter which reveals that Cyrus Ott really started the newspaper because he was in love with Betty -- one of the two editors he hired to run it -- our expectations have beaten him to the discovery. When a canned copyeditor seduces the CFO who fired him, simply to humiliate her, she's the only one who doesn't see it coming.

And Rachman could have made more of the period he chose. Rome in the late 50s and 60s is the city of Fellini and Pasolini, of cultural chaos, post-war liberation and crushing poverty. But this ferment and creativity are absent from The Imperfectionists -- it's a strangely sanitized Italy of quaint restaurants, streets, and bars.

The Imperfectionists is a novel written by a newspaperman for people who love newspapers. It is forthright and buttressed; written by someone who gets the lede and the nut graph. It doesn't really truck with post-modern contrivances. But despite its, yes, imperfections -- and they are not insubstantial -- there is something unexpectedly moving about this novel. It took me a while to figure out what that is. Rachman cares about his broken-down, dream-busted characters. He actually loves them and grieves for them in an unabashed way that is totally unironic, uncool, uncontemporary. And he loves his profession, too, which is dying as irremediably as Schopenauer. He cherishes the fading, radiating sound waves of impact that a certain kind of journalism once had. The thump-jump-thump of the manual typewriter, scotch neat, nailing an exclusive: these are Rachman's idea of sweet. In one of his better paragraphs, he writes straight out of his uncontained omniscience:

Admittedly, the paper's readership is only about ten thousand people nowadays, but at least they are passionate. And the postmarks come from all around the world, which is heartening. For many… the paper is their only link to the greater world, to the big cities they left, or the big cities they have never seen, only built in their minds. The readers constitute a sort of fellowship that never meets, united by loved and loathed bylines, by screwed-up photo captions, by the glorious corrections box.

Tom Rachman has written an obituary disguised as a novel.

--Adam Hanft

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307767844
  • Publisher: Random House Adult Trade Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 7/28/2010
  • Edition description: E-bundle
  • Product dimensions: 6.38 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Tom Rachman was born in London and raised in Vancouver. A graduate of the University of Toronto and the Columbia School of Journalism, he has been a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press, stationed in Rome. From 2006 to 2008, he worked as an editor at the International Herald Tribune in Paris. He lives in Rome.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Read an Excerpt

The Imperfectionists

A Novel
By Tom Rachman

The Dial Press

Copyright © 2010 Tom Rachman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780385343664

"Bush Slumps to New Low in Polls" 

  Paris Correspondent-Lloyd Burko  

Lloyd shoves off the bedcovers and hurries to the front door in white underwear and black socks. He steadies himself on the knob and shuts his eyes. Chill air rushes under the door; he curls his toes. But the hallway is silent. Only high-heeled clicks from the floor above. A shutter squeaking on the other side of the courtyard. His own breath, whistling in his nostrils, whistling out.  

Faintly, a woman's voice drifts in. He clenches his eyelids tighter, as if to drive up the volume, but makes out only murmurs, a breakfast exchange between the woman and the man in the apartment across the hall. Until, abruptly, their door opens: her voice grows louder, the hallway floorboards creak-she is approaching. Lloyd hustles back, unlatches the window above the courtyard, and takes up a position there, gazing out over his corner of Paris.   She taps on his front door.  

"Come in," he says. "No need to knock." And his wife enters their apartment for the first time since the night before.   He does not turn from the window to face Eileen, only presses his bald knees harder into the iron guardrail. She smoothes down the back of his gray hair. He flinches, surprised to betouched.  

"Only me," she says.  

He smiles, eyes crinkling, lips parting, inhaling as if to speak. But he has no reply. She lets go.  

He turns finally to find her seated before the drawer where they keep old photographs. A kitchen towel hangs from her shoulder and she wipes off her fingers, damp from peeled potatoes, dishwashing liquid, diced onions, scented from mothballed blankets, soil from the window boxes-Eileen is a woman who touches everything, tastes all, digs in. She slips on her reading glasses.  

"What are you hunting for in there?" he asks.  

"Just a picture of me in Vermont when I was little. To show Didier." She rises, taking a photo album with her, and stands by the front door. "You have plans for dinner, right?" 

  "Mm." He nods at the album. "Bit by bit," he says.  

"What's that mean?" 

  "You're shifting across the hall." 

  "No."  

 "You're allowed to."  

He hasn't resisted her friendship with Didier, the man across the hall. She is not finished with that part of her life, with sex, as Lloyd is. She is eighteen years younger, a gap that incited him once but that, now he is seventy, separates them like a lake. He blows her a kiss and returns to the window.  

The floorboards in the hallway creak. Didier's front door opens and shuts-Eileen doesn't knock over there, just goes in.   Lloyd glances at the phone. It has been weeks since he sold an article and he needs money. He dials the paper in Rome.  

An intern transfers him to the news editor, Craig Menzies, a balding worrier who decides much of what appears in each edition. No matter the time of day, Menzies is at his desk. The man has nothing in his life but news.  

"Good time for a pitch?" Lloyd asks.  

"I'm a tad busy, actually. Could you zing me an e-mail?" 

  "Can't. Problem with my computer." The problem is that he doesn't own one; Lloyd still uses a word processor, vintage 1993. "I can print something and fax it over."

   "Tell me by phone. But please, if possible, could you get your computer working?"  

"Yes: get computer fixed. Duly noted." He scratches his finger across the notepad, as if to tease out a better idea than the one scrawled there. "You folks interested in a feature on the ortolan? It's this French delicacy, a bird-a sort of finch, I think-that's illegal to sell here. They stick it in a cage, poke out its eyes so it can't tell day from night, then feed it round the clock. When it's full up, they drown it in Cognac and cook it. Mitterrand ate one for his last meal."   "Uh-huh," Menzies responds circumspectly. "But sorry, where's the news?" 

  "No news. Just a feature."  

"You have anything else?"  

 Lloyd scratches at his pad again. "How about a business piece on wine: sales of rosé outstripping white for the first time in France." 

  "Is that true?"  

"I think so. I still have to double-check."  

"Do you have anything more timely?"  

"You don't want the ortolan?" 

  "I don't think we have space for it. It's a tight day-four pages in news."  

All the other publications Lloyd freelanced for have dumped him. Now he suspects that the paper-his final string, his last employer-is looking to send him away, too.  

"You know our money problems, Lloyd. We're only buying freelance stuff that's jaw-dropping these days. Which isn't saying yours isn't good. I just mean Kathleen only wants enterprise now. Terrorism, nuclear Iran, resurgent Russia-that kind of thing. Anything else we basically take from the wires. It's a money thing, not about you." 

  Lloyd hangs up and returns to the window, gazing out at Sixth Arrondissement apartment buildings, white walls dirtied where rain drizzled and drainpipes leaked, the paint peeling, shutters closed tight, courtyards below where residents' bicycles huddle, handlebars and pedals and spokes jammed into each other, zinc roofs overhead, capped chimney pipes streaking white smoke across white sky. 

  He walks over to the closed front door and stands still, listening. She might come back from Didier's unbidden. This is their home, for Christ's sake.  

When the dinner hour arrives, he bangs about as clamorously as possible, crashing the door into the coatrack, simulating a coughing fit on his way out, all to ensure that Eileen across the hall hears him leaving for his supposed dinner plans, although no such plans exist. He simply will not sit down for another charity meal with her and Didier.   He wanders down Boulevard du Montparnasse to kill time, buys a box of calissons to give to his daughter Charlotte, and returns home, as stealthy now as he was noisy before. When he enters the apartment, he raises the front door on its hinges to dull the squeak, clicks it gently shut. He doesn't turn on the main light-Eileen might see it under the door-and fumbles in the kitchen, leaving the fridge ajar for illumination. He opens a can of chickpeas and digs straight in with a fork, catching sight of his right hand, which is mottled with age spots. He switches the fork to his left hand, the decrepit right thrust deep in his trouser pocket, hugging a thin leather wallet.

   Been broke plenty of times. Always spent better than he saved. On tailored shirts from Jermyn Street. Cases of Château Gloria 1971. Shares in a racehorse that almost landed in the money. Impromptu vacations to Brazil with impromptu women. Taxis everywhere. He takes another fork of chickpeas. Salt. Needs salt. He drops a pinch into the can. 

  At dawn, he lies under layers of blankets and bedcovers-he doesn't use the heating anymore unless Eileen is here. He'll visit Charlotte today, but doesn't relish it. He turns on his other side, as if to flip from her to his son, Jérôme. Sweet kid. Lloyd flips again. So awake, so weary. Lazy-he's become lazy. How did that happen?  

He forces off the covers and, shivering in his underwear and socks, makes for his desk. He pores over old phone numbers-hundreds of scraps of paper, stapled, taped, glued in place. Too early to call anyone. He grins at names of former colleagues: the editor who cursed him out for missing the first Paris riots in '68 because he had been drunk in the bathtub with a lady friend. Or the bureau chief who flew him to Lisbon to cover the coup in '74, even though he couldn't speak a word of Portuguese. Or the reporter who got the giggles with Lloyd at a Giscard d'Estaing presser until they were flung out and upbraided by the press secretary. How many of these ancient numbers still work?  

The living-room curtains brighten gradually from behind. He parts them. The sun is not visible, nor clouds-only buildings. At least Eileen doesn't realize his money situation. If she found out, she'd try to help. And then what would he have left?   He opens the window, breathes in, presses his knees into the guardrail. The grandeur of Paris-its tallness and broadness and hardness and softness, its perfect symmetry, human will imposed on stone, on razored lawns, on the disobedient rosebushes-that Paris resides elsewhere. His own is smaller, containing himself, this window, the floorboards that creak across the hall.  

By 9 a.m., he is trooping north through the Luxembourg Gardens. By the Palais de Justice, he rests. Flagging already? Lazy bastard. He forces himself onward, over the Seine, up Rue Montorgueil, past the Grands Boulevards.  

Charlotte's shop is on Rue Rochechouart-not too high up the hill, thankfully. The store isn't open yet, so he wanders toward a café, then changes his mind at the door-no money to waste on luxuries. He gazes in the window of his daughter's shop, which is full of handmade hats, designed by Charlotte and produced by a team of young women in high-waisted linen aprons and mobcaps, like eighteenth-century maids.   She arrives later than the posted opening time. "Oui?" she says upon seeing her father-she only talks to him in French.  

"I was admiring your window," he says. "It's beautifully arranged."

   She unlocks the shop and enters. "Why are you wearing a tie? Do you have somewhere to go?"  

"Here-I was coming here to see you." He hands her the box of candies. "Some calissons."  

"I don't eat those."

   "I thought you loved them."  

"Not me. Brigitte does." This is her mother, the second of Lloyd's ex-wives.  

"Could you give them to her?"  

"She won't want anything from you."

   "You're so angry with me, Charlie."  

She marches to the other side of the shop, tidying as if it were combat. A customer enters and Charlotte puts on a smile. Lloyd removes himself to a corner. The customer leaves and Charlotte resumes her pugilistic dusting.   "Did I do something wrong?" he asks.  

"My God-you are so egocentric."  

He peers into the back of the shop.  

"They're not here yet," she snaps.  

"Who aren't?"  

"The girls."  

"Your workers? Why are you telling me that?"  

"You got here too early. Bad timing." Charlotte claims that Lloyd has pursued every woman she ever introduced him to, starting with her best friend at lycée, Nathalie, who came along for a vacation to Antibes once and lost her bikini top in the waves. Charlotte caught Lloyd watching. Thankfully, she never learned that matters eventually went much further between her father and Nathalie.  

But all that is over. Finished, finally. So senseless in retrospect-such effort wasted. Libido: it has been the tyrant of his times, hurling him from comfortable America all those years ago to sinful Europe for adventure and conquest, marrying him four times, tripping him up a hundred more, distracting and degrading and nearly ruining him. Yet now it is mercifully done with, desire having dwindled these past years, as mysterious in departure as it was on arrival. For the first time since age twelve, Lloyd witnesses the world without motive. And he is quite lost.  

"You really don't like the candies?" he says. 

  "I didn't ask for them."

   "No, you didn't." He smiles sadly. "Is there something I could do for you, though?"  

"What for?"  

"To help."  

"I don't want your help."  

"All right," he says. "All right, then." He nods, sighs, and turns for the door.  

She comes out after him. He reaches to touch her arm, but she pulls away. She hands back the box of calissons. "I'm not going to use these."  

Back home, he runs through his contact numbers and ends up calling an old reporter buddy, Ken Lazzarino, now working at a magazine in Manhattan. They exchange news and get nostalgic for a few minutes, but an undercurrent runs through the conversation: both men know that Lloyd needs a favor, but he can't bring himself to ask. Finally, he forces it out. "What if I wanted to pitch something?"  

"You never wrote for us, Lloyd." 

  "I know, I'm just wondering if."  

"I do online strategy now-I don't have a say in content anymore."  

"Is there someone you could get me in touch with?"  

After listening to several variations of no, Lloyd puts down the phone.  

He eats another can of chickpeas and tries Menzies again at the paper. "What about me doing the European business roundup today?"  

"Hardy Benjamin handles that now."  

"I know it's a pain for you guys that I don't have this email stuff working. I can fax it, though. It won't make a difference."  

"It does, actually. But look, I'll call if we need something out of Paris. Or give me a ring if you have something newsy."  

Lloyd opens a French current-affairs magazine in hopes of stealing a story idea. He flips the pages impatiently-he doesn't recognize half the names. Who the hell is that guy in the photo? He used to know everything going on in this country. At press conferences, he was front-row, arm raised, rushing up afterward to pitch questions from the sidelines. At embassy cocktail parties, he sidled up to the ambassadors with a grin, notebook emerging from his hip pocket. Nowadays, if he attends press conferences at all, he's back-row, doodling, dozing. Embossed invitations pile up on his coffee table. Scoops, big and little, pass him by. He still has smarts enough to produce the obvious pieces-those he can do drunk, eyelids closed, in his underwear at the word processor.

   He tosses the current-affairs magazine onto a chair. What's the point in trying? He calls his son's mobile. "Am I waking you?" he asks in French, the language they use together.

   Jérôme covers the phone and coughs. 

  "I was hoping to buy you lunch later," Lloyd says. "Shouldn't you be down at the ministry at this hour?"  

But Jérôme has the day off, so they agree to meet at a bistro around Place de Clichy, which is near where the young man lives, though the precise location of Jérôme's home is as much a mystery to Lloyd as are the details of the young man's job at the French foreign ministry. The boy is secretive.  

Lloyd arrives at the bistro early to check the prices on the menu. He opens his wallet to count the cash, then takes a table. 

  When Jérôme walks in, Lloyd stands and smiles. "I'd almost forgotten how fond I am of you."

   Jérôme sits quickly, as if caught out in musical chairs. "You're strange."  

"Yes. It's true."  

Jérôme flaps out the napkin and runs a hand through his floppy locks, leaving tangled tents of hair. His mother, Françoise, a tobacco-fingered stage actress, had the same hair-mussing habit and it made her even more attractive until years later, when she had no work, and it made her disheveled. Jérôme, at twenty-eight, is tattered already, dressed as if by a vintage shop, in a velvet blazer whose sleeves stop halfway up his forearms and an over-tight pin-striped shirt, cigarette rolling papers visible through a rip in the breast pocket.  

"Let me buy you a shirt," Lloyd says impulsively. "You need a proper shirt. We'll go down to Hilditch & Key, down on Rivoli. We'll take a taxi. Come on." He speaks rashly-he couldn't afford a new shirt. But Jérôme declines.  

Continues...

Excerpted from The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman Copyright © 2010 by Tom Rachman. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Reading Group Guide

1. How did you feel when you encountered a protagonist from one chapter in a different key somewhere else?  Did these moments ever catch you by surprise?
 
2. Why do you think Cyrus Ott started his newspaper?  Why do you think his family kept it going?  
 
3. Do you think Hardy Benjamin made the right decision to ignore the theft she uncovered? And which is more important in a relationship: love or honesty?
 
4. Is there a lesson to be learned in the story of Arthur Gopal's rise through the ranks?
 
5. What do you think kept Ruby Zaga in her job all those years?  Is her persistence admirable?  
 
6. At one point Herman Cohen muses: ""All this had been a most extraordinary surprise; he had expected an unhappy life, yet ended up with the opposite."  What do you think accounts for his happy fate?  Is it luck, or something else?
 
7. Do you think someone like the war correspondent Rich Snyder might gain fame and recognition despite his bad behavior -- or because of how he behaves? Would you rather be Snyder or Winston Cheung? 

8. Do you see traits of any of the characters in people you've worked with?
  
9. How did the Roman setting inform the reading experience of The Imperfectionists?  What do you think it would be like to be an expatriate?  
 
10. What do you think the future holds for the newspaper?  How has the way you receive news day to day changed in recent years?  
 

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 499 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(96)

4 Star

(150)

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(152)

2 Star

(45)

1 Star

(56)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 503 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 6, 2011

    Highly NOT recommended--don't check it out (unless from a library)

    Absolutely hated this book. Hated every moment I spent reading it. Unfortunately, I hadn't fully decided that I hated it until I was about half way thru so I decided I may as well finish it. The writing was okay; it was well-written, competent. What I disliked about the book was the format--each character has a separate chapter and all characters are connected by their having worked at the newspaper in Rome (which I don't think is ever given a name). Although I wasn't crazy about that format, it could have worked for me if not for the fact that every chapter followed basically the same format: every character is revealed in his/her personal life to be (almost always) a pathetic, disagreeable, unlikeable, unsympathetic person. Without fail. And while this person is revealed to have the most amazing character flaws, the "shock" ending or final reveal is always in the last few paragraphs. It was so formulaic that I came to expect this pattern: a) the character being focused on each chapter is probably some kind of jerk or pathetic loser and his/her flaw will be revealed in less than four pages, b)the last one or two paragraphs will reveal a final twist or revelation that you probably shouldn't see coming (although if you have half a brain and pay attention to the book, you should really expect it), and c)every revelation/twist is going to be something bad. I just hated this book. I don't see how writing a book that explores (in almost every chapter) the character flaws of these characters and is negative throughout makes this book "spectacular," "magnificent," or "beguiling." These are one-word reviews quoted on the cover of the paperback copy of this book I unfortunately spent my money on. This book is not all that interesting, the people are not so fascinating because Rachman doesn't give the reader enough time to know the characters--we just get brief, mostly disagreeable slices of their lives. Perhaps you have to be a journalist or be connected with the newspaper business in some way to enjoy and appreciate this book. I absolutely hated it and don't recommend it to anyone.

    13 out of 18 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 23, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Compelling Ensemble

    WKRP in Cincinnati. It was a sitcom in the early 80s, I think? Without disparaging this work of literary fiction, I was somewhat reminded of that goofy little show. It was set in a radio station, but made memorable by the collective weirdness of every character in the ensemble cast. Each episode seemed to focus on one person's problem, usually humorous, and filled out with the other characters who rotated in significance per the episode.


    In The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman, there is a similar layout to the novel. Instead of a radio station, it's a daily newspaper in Rome, with mostly expats running the show. Often funny, sometimes bleak, the book moves along and introduces you to each character separately then shows them as part of the whole. No sight gags or corny humor like in WKRP, but a feeling of tolerable camaraderie between people thrown together and not especially liking it.

    Richman doesn't use any cliches: there's no "Devil Wears Prada" evil boss, and even the most insignificant of copy editors has a life outside the newsroom that is a story in itself. That's why the novel is so fascinating. Without one single main protagonist, much more is in play that makes the story move. There's the obnoxious Snyder, who constantly travels to different war zones seeking a story, but remains oblivious to human tragedy. He decides that knowing different languages interferes with his objectivity, so all sources must speak English. Business editor Hardy, an intelligent female reporter who is so desperate for a companion that she finds a relationship with the loser Rory who robbed her apartment. Lloyd, who has no relationship with any of his children, and really nothing in his life of value, resorts to falsifying stories just to make a little money. And Dave, who enacts the perfect revenge on the accountant who fired him. Then there's the spell-check program that renames an important historical character "Sadism Hussein."

    Finally, there's the love letter Ott wrote, never seen by his beloved: "I built and I built-heaven knows that I have done that well. Those skyscrapers, full of tenants, floor after floor, and not a single room containing you."

    In all, Rachman creates these characters amid the underlying theme of a newspaper trying to make money in the age of the Internet. He contrasts the tactile importance a newspaper used to have with the overload of information online that can't even be grasped. Instead of lecturing about this relevant information, he shows how the newspaper changes in content over three generations of owners-the Ott family. This is a fun read, full of laughs but tender and meaningful too.

    13 out of 14 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 15, 2010

    An amazing debut novel from a surprisingly mature young writer.

    Alternately moving and comic, this novel is a series of vignettes connected by a common location, an English-language newspaper based in Rome. The end result is haunting. The debut novelist displays an unexpected understanding of his disparate characters, their lives and failed dreams. The newspaper itself provides a microcosm of publishing over the last fifty years, ending with the contemporary threats posed by the economy and the internet. A book to remember and to reread.

    9 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 29, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    INTERESTING!

    This novel, set in Rome, is focused on the personal lives of various news reporters, executives, copy editors, and a reader. Most of the characters dislike or even hate their jobs. We get a peek into their innermost feelings. Interesting! EXCITING!

    7 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 13, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    masterfully crafted novel

    This book is hard to put down, because each chapter is a character sketch with such wit and originality -- and you're sure to know somebody just like that character. Or, at least you THINK they're just like that character! The author lets you listen in on their most personal (and often banal, though each person imparts his/her own twist) thoughts. A unifying thread running through what would otherwise be a short-story collection relates background history of the quirky international newspaper that serves as a common connection - from the motivation of its founder, then its heyday, to the declining influence of the print media in our time.

    6 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 7, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Superb Debut Novel

    Tom Rachman's debut novel is one of the best books I have read all of 2010 and thus far this year. Each of his chapters can be read alone and make absolute sense alone, yet is a work of wonder when put together. He defies all newbie pitfalls, writing as if this were is twenty-first best seller, rather than his first.

    He tells the story of an English-speaking newspaper established in Rome. The story weaves the past with the present seamlessly. He also brings the city of Rome to life as well. Each character has their own chapter to tell their story. By the end of the novel the reader will have a glimpse of the human toll it takes to run a newspaper in the twentieth century, including all the ups and downs changes in leadership can cause.

    This is such an engrossing novel that putting it down is near impossible as I read "just one more page." I was raised in a newspaper family and despite this was completely enthralled. I can not wait for Mr. Rachman's sophomore novel.

    NOTE: received book from publisher

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 14, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    "Meet the Press"

    Rachman is right on target depicting the characteristics of people in the newspaper business. He certainly has captured the nature of the profession & understanding of how the print media has suffered due to the internet. I loved the encounter on the plane between Abby,the financial officer, & the man she fired...so realistic with the mixed feelings that occur in any new relationship, but especially under these circumstances. Rachman has created an interesting mix of reality with the somewhat bizarre...of human nature. Now, add a touch of humor...a winning combo. A new author to watch out for.

    5 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 22, 2010

    What an outstanding book!

    After this book, I hope Tom Rachman writes another, but how can he top this one? This book is a delight to read - beautifully written, interesting, often witty and sometimes sad, intelligent, and touching. Delving beneath the surface of disparate lives connected by one newspaper in Rome. A masterful book.

    5 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 26, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Don't understand the hype

    When I first read the synopsis for this book I thought it sounded so interesting. Not only did I think the book sounded fun, but the rave reviews I read about this book further intrigued me.

    When I began reading the book, I was a bit confused. I thought it jumped into the middle of the story. I quickly learned that the first chapter was about an older freelance reporter who was quickly losing his reputation and work. Then we moved onto the next chapter and it was someone else.

    This book is told kind of in a series of short stories. Each chapter is about a different character, though sometimes a previous or subsequent character is mentioned in other chapters. In between each chapter, the reader is taken into the past to learn of the history behind the newspaper and its founder. These in between chapters start at the beginning of the paper and continue up to the present.

    Each chapter, or vignette, became increasingly more interesting. Some of them even left me at a cliffhanger. At one point, I wanted so desperately to find out what happened to that particular character (Hardy) that I looked to the Table of Contents to find out when I would learn more of her story. Come to find out that's all she got. One chapter! So I held out hope that things would be wrapped up nicely at the end of the book and we would find out what happened to all of these people and the stories I had learned.

    Unfortunately, things with this book just kept getting worse and worse. The stories of these people's lives kept getting more depressing. The paper just kept losing more and more money. And my hope for a happy ending kept diminishing.

    When I did finally finish the book, I was pretty annoyed. There was no wrap up. I never found out what happened to Hardy or any of the other crazy things that happened with these people. Each story did intrigue me and get me interested in the character's lives...but then I was left out in the cold. I only got partial stories. There was a small wrap up at the end of the book, but nowhere near what I wanted.

    At this point, I don't see the point of this book. I have no idea why the reviews are so awesome for this novel or the author. Sure, his writing style is good and the character development is good...but what's the point in getting invested in someone, just to have the door slammed in your face without finding out how things work out?

    All in all, I wouldn't recommend this book to anyone who likes things tied up neatly at the end. You won't get that with this book. Actually, I'm not really sure I would recommend this book to anyone at all. I'm beyond annoyed and feel as though I wasted my time and money on this book.

    However, if anyone has read and enjoyed this book, I would love to know what I'm missing...because I just don't see the point. I gained nothing from this reading experience and that makes me sad.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 25, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Will make my top ten list for all time

    Fab read: compelling, brilliantly crafted, perfect novel from start to finish. Loved every page.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 2, 2011

    Do not waste you time.

    Boring to read. Our book club decided it was a dud.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 25, 2011

    Great Book.

    I really enjoyed this book, it is a very quick qnd easy read. Very creative for hos first book, can't wait for his next.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 26, 2011

    What's all the fuss?

    The book is well written, but the characters, while well drawn, are hardly worthy of memorializing in a book. These people have nothing to recommend them. Although the setting is Rome, Italy, there is really no sense of being in this foreign country. It could have been Paris, Texas or Columbus, Ohio.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 27, 2011

    great up until the last chapter

    This book is very clever in introducing each character as their own short story, then weaving those characters throughout the book. I was loving this book until a shocking event happens near the end that was very disturbing.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 28, 2010

    When you finish a book and realize it will have a lasting effect upon how you think about human behavior, you know it was a good book. This was a good book.

    The cover of the paperback actually makes you think of the frenzy of the newsroom with the quotes of the reviewers and the pictured stack of tied up newspapers. I thought it was really well designed. The hard cover does not have the same effect since the quotes are missing. Since I have both copies, I feel I can tell you I prefer the look of the paperback.
    This interesting little novel explores all of life's human foibles and frailties in an exaggerated fashion, as it develops various characters in the print industry. Although it exposes the many levels of deceit, subterfuge, compromise, withdrawal, manipulation etc., that humans will sink to when driven by "need" for perhaps revenge, greed, survival, loss, loneliness, hopelessness and helplessness etc., and I was surprised to find them sympathetic, even in their desire to exploit others, in order to make up for their own shortcomings, laziness and insecurities. They disappointed me with their choices and behavior and I did not find them likeable. The characters were often pathetic examples of human beings and it was hard to read some of the chapters because they were capable of such cruelty, at the same time as they seemed loving and gentle. Many seemed unprepared for life and unwilling to learn how to live in a better way. They seemed to accept mediocrity as a standard.
    Each character is separately examined in its own chapter, although all are linked in the end as they march onward in their drive to develop as "losers", imperfect human beings. Perhaps the message is that we are all imperfect in our own way but I wish I had been left with more hope for the improvement of the species!
    In order to feel successful or accepted, rather than work toward perfection as a goal, "making it" in a positive way, the characters often sacrificed those that loved them and respected them the most, in order to be with selfish, often unscrupulous, dishonest and unmotivated individuals. They wished to satisfy their own desires and achieve their often, undesirable ends regardless of the cost!
    I did find the number of different characters to be a problem, at times, because there were so many and they were sometimes only incidentally connected. The author made me constantly ask myself the question, "Should the individual's happiness be the only goal and end result, regardless of the consequence for others"? Can we actually aspire to and achieve perfection or at least, a better way to live and work in the world without hurting or abusing others, without totally disregarding the effect of our actions upon others? The book makes you stop and think about human behavior and when you turn the last page, it will leave its mark upon you.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 17, 2011

    Recommend, with reservations

    Although the story is a bit dark, the novel is well crafted. Rachman explores the idea that "life moves on and unless one moves forward with it one is left behind". Each character's individual story reflects this overlying theme of being "stuck at some point in the past". The newspaper for which they all work is also unwilling to embrace the technological present and eventually dies. Interesting novel. Well written.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 15, 2011

    Highly recommend

    I discovered this book through my book club. I love the way Tom Rachman writes. Clever, and honest. Interesting characters developed with insight and sympathy.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 16, 2011

    Not recommended

    What am I missing? This book had rave reviews and I find it boring and lacking in "beguilness"!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 3, 2011

    Well-written, but not for me

    Life is heavy enough that when I turn to fiction, I am searching for entertainment, a reprieve. This book is most definitely not that. While I understand that Rachman was trying to generate sympathy for the characters in the reader, I found this book very hard to enjoy as there is no redemption of any kind for any of the characters. Furthermore, like the other reviewer, I found the last scene shocking and entirely unnecessary. I don't think I'll be recommending this book to anyone.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 31, 2011

    Lives Imperfect

    I enjoyed the two seemingly disparate stories told in this book. Through one story we learn about the history of an Italian-based newspaper written for an audience of English speakers, from its inception onward. Interspersed are chapters focusing on one employee of the newspaper as told from their viewpoint. Each character lives a sad life bounded by an invisible cage they created and cannot escape. The character sketches are somewhat depressing but show these people with all their scabs. The two story lines intersect in the end to bring the reader to the present. The ending is fitting for the book, sad but realistic.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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