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Perfect

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Overview

A spellbinding novel that will resonate with readers of Mark Haddon, Louise Erdrich, and John Irving, Perfect tells the story of a young boy who is thrown into the murky, difficult realities of the adult world with far-reaching consequences.

Byron Hemmings wakes to a morning that looks like any other: his school uniform draped over his wooden desk chair, his sister arguing over the breakfast cereal, the click of his mother’s heels as she crosses the kitchen. But when the three ...

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Perfect: A Novel

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Overview

A spellbinding novel that will resonate with readers of Mark Haddon, Louise Erdrich, and John Irving, Perfect tells the story of a young boy who is thrown into the murky, difficult realities of the adult world with far-reaching consequences.

Byron Hemmings wakes to a morning that looks like any other: his school uniform draped over his wooden desk chair, his sister arguing over the breakfast cereal, the click of his mother’s heels as she crosses the kitchen. But when the three of them leave home, driving into a dense summer fog, the morning takes an unmistakable turn. In one terrible moment, something happens, something completely unexpected and at odds with life as Byron understands it. While his mother seems not to have noticed, eleven-year-old Byron understands that from now on nothing can be the same.
 
What happened and who is to blame? Over the days and weeks that follow, Byron’s perfect world is shattered. Unable to trust his parents, he confides in his best friend, James, and together they concoct a plan. . . .
 
As she did in her debut, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Rachel Joyce has imagined bewitching characters who find their ordinary lives unexpectedly thrown into chaos, who learn that there are times when children must become parents to their parents, and who discover that in confronting the hard truths about their pasts, they will forge unexpected relationships that have profound and surprising impacts. Brimming with love, forgiveness, and redemption, Perfect will cement Rachel Joyce’s reputation as one of fiction’s brightest talents.

Praise for Perfect
 
“Touching, eccentric . . . Joyce does an inviting job of setting up these mysterious circumstances, and of drawing Byron’s magical closeness with Diana.”—Janet Maslin, The New York Tiimes
 
“Haunting . . . compelling.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune
 
“[Joyce] triumphantly returns with Perfect. . . . As Joyce probes the souls of Diana, Byron and Jim, she reveals—slowly and deliberately, as if peeling back a delicate onion skin—the connection between the two stories, creating a poignant, searching tale.”O: The Oprah Magazine
 
Perfect touches on class, mental illness, and the ways a psyche is formed or broken. It has the tenor of a horror film, and yet at the end, in some kind of contortionist trick, the narrative unfolds into an unexpected burst of redemption. [Verdict:] Buy It.”New York
 
“Joyce’s dark, quiet follow-up to her successful debut, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, could easily become a book club favorite. . . . Perfect is the kind of book that blossoms under thoughtful examination, its slow tendencies redeemed by moments of loveliness and insight. However sad, Joyce’s messages—about the limitations of time and control, the failures of adults and the fears of children, and our responsibility for our own imprisonment and freedom—have a gentle ring of truth to them.”The Washington Post
 
“There is a poignancy to Joyce’s narrative that makes for her most memorable writing.”—NPR’s All Things Considered

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
09/16/2013
An 11-year-old boy makes an error that brings tragedy to several lives, including his own, in Joyce’s intriguing and suspenseful novel. One summer day in a small English village in 1972, Byron Hemmings’s mother, Diana, is driving him and his younger sister to school when their Jaguar hits a little girl on a red bicycle. Diana drives on, unaware, with only Byron having seen the accident. Byron doesn’t know whether or not the girl was killed, however, and concocts a plan called “Operation Perfect” to shield his mother from what happened. Previously, she has always presented the picture of domestic perfection in trying to please her martinet banker husband, Seymour, and overcome her lower-class origins. After Byron decides to tell her the truth about the accident, she feverishly attempts to make amends by befriending the injured girl’s mother, but her “perfect” facade begins to splinter. Joyce sometimes strains credibility in describing Diana’s psychological deterioration, but the novel’s fast pacing keeps things tense. Meanwhile, in alternate chapters, Jim, a psychologically fragile man in his 50s, endures a menial cafe job. Joyce, showing the same talent for adroit plot development seen in the bestselling The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, brings both narrative strands together in a shocking, redemptive (albeit weepily sentimental) denouement. The novel is already a bestseller in England. (Jan.)
Kirkus Reviews
2013-10-05
The time is out of joint, as the follow-up to a popular novelistic debut brings a slightly darker edge to its fablelike whimsy. Having earned a best-selling readership in both the U.S. and her native Britain with The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (2012), Joyce returns with an even less likely but more ambitious piece of fictional fancy. The protagonist is 11-year-old Byron, a reflective and innocent schoolboy who becomes overly concerned when his best friend, James, tells him that two seconds will be added to this leap year to somehow even things out. After his mother assures him that "[w]hen it happens you won't notice. Two seconds are nothing," Byron responds, "That's what nobody realizes. Two seconds are huge. It's the difference between something happening and something not happening." And with the addition of those two seconds--or not--something happens--or not. And whether or not something happens, everything changes. A veteran of the stage and a radio playwright before turning to fiction, Joyce specializes in the sort of insights that some find charming, others cloying and a style that could sometimes pass for fairy tale, other times for Young Adult (though those readers wouldn't have much patience for her plotting). The novel alternates between chapters that follow what happens to Byron, his mother and their family (which the reader quickly realizes is more dysfunctional than Byron does) and ones that concern an adult sufferer of obsessive-compulsive disorder who resorts to menial labor when the British mental health system fails him. "No one knows how to be normal, Jim," a social worker tells him. "We're all just trying to do our best." The two plot lines must inevitably intersect, but the manner in which they do will likely surprise even the most intuitive reader. Many of those who loved the author's first novel should at least like her second.
From the Publisher
“Touching, eccentric . . . Joyce does an inviting job of setting up these mysterious circumstances, and of drawing Byron’s magical closeness with Diana.”—Janet Maslin, The New York Tiimes
 
“Haunting . . . compelling.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune
 
“[Joyce] triumphantly returns with Perfect. . . . As Joyce probes the souls of Diana, Byron and Jim, she reveals—slowly and deliberately, as if peeling back a delicate onion skin—the connection between the two stories, creating a poignant, searching tale.”O: The Oprah Magazine
 
Perfect touches on class, mental illness, and the ways a psyche is formed or broken. It has the tenor of a horror film, and yet at the end, in some kind of contortionist trick, the narrative unfolds into an unexpected burst of redemption. [Verdict:] Buy It.”New York
 
“Joyce’s dark, quiet follow-up to her successful debut, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, could easily become a book club favorite. . . . Perfect is the kind of book that blossoms under thoughtful examination, its slow tendencies redeemed by moments of loveliness and insight. However sad, Joyce’s messages—about the limitations of time and control, the failures of adults and the fears of children, and our responsibility for our own imprisonment and freedom—have a gentle ring of truth to them.”The Washington Post
 
“There is a poignancy to Joyce’s narrative that makes for her most memorable writing.”—NPR’s All Things Considered
 
“Beautifully written . . . Joyce showed an incredible sensitivity and understanding when she wrote about the impact of mental illness in Harold Fry, and that talent shines even brighter now that she’s devoting more space to the subject. . . . Joyce is great at building tension, with her prose managing to give huge weight to a menacing comment or a small mistake.”The A.V. Club

Perfect is a poignant and powerful book, rich with empathy and charged with beautiful, atmospheric writing.”—Tana French,  author of In the Woods and Broken Harbor
 
“[Rachel] Joyce, showing the same talent for adroit plot development seen in the bestselling The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, brings both narrative strands together in a shocking, redemptive denouement.”—Publishers Weekly
 
“[Perfect’s] unputdownable factor . . . lies in its exploration of so many multilayered emotions. There is the unbreakable bond between mother and son, the fear of not belonging . . . and how love can offer redemption.”—London Evening Standard

From the Hardcover edition.

Library Journal
After an award-winning career as an actor and playwright, Joyce turned her hand to fiction and came up with last year's international best seller The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Here, she's replaced enterprising retiree Harold Fry with equally enterprising 11-year-old Byron Hemmings, who's dismayed when his mother seems totally oblivious to a terrible event that happens while she's driving him and his sister through thick fog on the way to school. With good buddy James, the suddenly distrustful Byron hatches a plan to discover the truth.
The Barnes & Noble Review

If you have a child in your life or haven't forgotten what it's like to be one, you know the kaleidoscopic way kids make sense of the world. It's all shards and shapes and sudden colors, and the details don't always add up. That's what we see through the eyes of Byron Hemmings, the eleven-year-old boy at the center of Perfect, Rachel Joyce's dark and disquieting second novel.

We enter the story in the spring of 1972. Byron lives in a country house at the edge of an English moor with his little sister, Lucy, and their beautiful mother, Diana. Their father, Seymour, spends the weekdays in London, where he works in the financial district. He's stern and controlling, and his weekend visits to Diana and the children are tense affairs. They're something to be endured until Sunday night, when Seymour leaves and life returns to normal.

For Byron, normal life isn't all that great. He's an introvert, overweight, and, when we meet him, overwrought. He's worked himself into a state over the decision to add two "leap seconds" to time in order to sync up the world's clocks. Byron's best friend, James, had tossed off this bit of information as a fun fact, something to talk about during the dull school day. Diana is equally blasé. But to Byron, mucking around with time puts the workings of very universe at risk.

"Two seconds are huge," Byron tells Diana when she tries to soothe him. "It's the difference between something happening and something not happening. You could take one step too many and fall over the edge of a cliff. It's very dangerous."

Sure enough, something happens. Diana is driving the children to school when a thick fog sweeps down off the moors. It obliterates the road, stops traffic, and puts the children in danger of being tardy. On an impulse Diana takes a detour through the unfamiliar territory of the local public housing development. It's a lower-class area that Seymour, ever a guardian of his family's moneyed status, has declared off- limits. Byron looks at his watch and the second hand stutters backwards. In his frenzy to warn Diana that the perilous two extra seconds have just now appeared, he distracts her and there is an accident.

As Byron starts his struggle to contain the fallout from the fateful detour, Joyce weaves in a second story. Here we meet Jim, a man in his early fifties, living in the present day. It's set in the same bit of English countryside but transformed by the recent addition of a cookie-cutter housing development.

Jim is deeply damaged, most visibly by a severe obsessive- compulsive disorder. To deal with the torment, Jim has shrunk his life down to two barely manageable worlds. There's his home, a ramshackle van parked at the edge of the moor, where he performs an endless series of intricate rituals. And there's his job as a busboy at a supermarket café. There, a fellow employee, the free-spirited Eileen, doggedly pursues Jim despite his growing distress.

Joyce's debut novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, was published in 2012, but she's no newcomer to storytelling. An actress who became an award-winning writer of radio plays for BBC Radio 4, Joyce received strong reviews for her first novel, which earned a spot on the long list for the 2012 Man Booker Prize.

In Perfect, as in her first book, Joyce explores mental illness, gender roles, and social class. The lovely Diana has a mysterious, perhaps even unsavory past, and Sydney makes sure there is no trace of it. While the other women in town move into the 1970s in tank tops and peasant skirts, Diana is required to cling to the markers of a vanishing era:

Byron's father preferred his wife to dress more formally. With her slim skirts and pointy heels, her matching handbag and her notebook, Diana made the other women look both oversized and underprepared.
Though here, too, Joyce's characters carry soul-searing secrets, the compensating sugary whimsy of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is gone. In its place Joyce has constructed a world of merciless cause-and-effect. And though Perfect is told through the close-focus view of two unreliable narrators, a crucial revelation in the end turns the story on its head even as it sews it together.

"[F]or one person to help another, for one small act of kindness to succeed, a lot must go well, a myriad of things must fall into place," Jim thinks near the end of the book, finally finding light at the end of his ordeal.

And the author's own act of kindness at the end of the book leaves the kaleidoscope transformed from broken vision to a hard-won kind of grace.

Veronique de Turenne is a Los Angeles–based journalist, essayist, and playwright. Her literary criticism appears on NPR and in major American newspapers. One of the highlights of her career was interviewing Vin Scully in his broadcast booth at Dodger Stadium, then receiving a handwritten thank-you note from him a few days later.

Reviewer: Veronique de Turenne

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812993301
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/14/2014
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 93,611
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Rachel Joyce is the author of the international bestseller The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. She is also the award-winning writer of more than twenty plays for BBC Radio 4. She started writing after a twenty-year acting career, in which she performed leading roles for the Royal Shakespeare Company and won multiple awards. Rachel Joyce lives with her family on a Gloucestershire farm.
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Read an Excerpt

1

Something Terrible

James Lowe and Byron Hemmings attended Winston House School because it was private. There was another junior school that was closer but it was not private; it was for everyone. The children who went there came from the council estate on Digby Road. They flicked orange peels and cigarette butts at the caps of the Winston House boys from the top windows of the bus. The Winston House boys did not travel on the bus. They had lifts with their mothers because they had so far to travel.

The future for the Winston House boys was mapped out. Theirs was a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The following year, they would take the Common Entrance exam for the college. The cleverest boys would win scholarships, and at thirteen they would board. They would speak with the right accent and learn the right things and meet the right people. After that it would be Oxford or Cambridge. James’s parents were thinking St. Peter’s; Byron’s were thinking Oriel. They would pursue careers in law or the City, the Church or the armed forces, like their fathers. One day they would have private rooms in London and large houses in the country where they would spend weekends with their wives and children.

It was the beginning of June in 1972. A trim of morning light slid beneath Byron’s blue curtains and picked out his neatly ordered possessions. There were his Look and Learn annuals, his stamp album, his torch, his new Abracadabra magic box, and the biology set with its own magnifying glass that he had received for Christmas. His school uniform had been washed and pressed by his mother the night before and was arranged in a flattened boy shape on a chair. Byron checked both his watch and his alarm clock. The second hands were moving steadily. Crossing the hall in silence, he eased open the door of his mother’s room and took up his place on the edge of her bed.

She lay very still. Her hair was a gold frill on the pillow and her face trembled with each breath as if she were made of water. Through her skin he could see the purple of her veins. Byron’s hands were soft and plump like the flesh of a peach, but James already had veins, faint threads that ran from his knuckles and would one day become ridges like a man’s.

At half past six, the alarm clock rang into the silence and his mother’s eyes flashed open, a shimmer of blue.

“Hello, sweetheart.”

“I’m worried,” said Byron.

“It isn’t time again?” She reached for her glass and her pill and took a sip of water.

“Suppose they are going to add the extra seconds today?”

“Is James worried too?”

“He seems to have forgotten.”

She wiped her mouth and he saw that she was smiling. Two dimples had appeared like tiny punctures in her cheeks. “We’ve been through this. We keep doing it. When they add the seconds, they’ll say something about it first in The Times. They’ll talk about it on Nationwide.”

“It’s giving me a headache,” he said.

“When it happens you won’t notice. Two seconds are nothing.”

Byron felt his blood heat. He almost stood but sat back again. “That’s what nobody realizes. Two seconds are huge. It’s the difference between something happening and something not happening. You could take one step too many and fall over the edge of a cliff. It’s very dangerous.”  The words came out in a rush.

She gazed back at him with her face crumpled the way it got when she was trying to work out a sum. “We really must get up,” she said.

His mother pulled back the curtains at the bay window and stared out. A summer mist was pouring in from Cranham Moor, so thick that the hills beyond the garden looked in danger of being washed away. She glanced at her wrist.

“Twenty-four minutes to seven,” she said, as if she were informing her watch of the correct time. Lifting her pink dressing gown from its hook, she went to wake Lucy.

When Byron pictured the inside of his mother’s head, he imagined a series of tiny inlaid drawers with jeweled handles so delicate that his fingers would struggle to get a grip. The other mothers were not like her. They wore crocheted tank tops and layered skirts and some of them even had the new wedge shoes. Byron’s father preferred his wife to dress more formally. With her slim skirts and pointy heels, her matching handbag and her notebook, Diana made other women look both oversize and underprepared. Andrea Lowe, James’s mother, towered over Diana Hemmings like a dark-haired giant. Diana’s notebook contained articles she had snipped and glued from the pages of Good Housekeeping and Family Circle. She wrote down birthdays she had to remember, important dates for the school term, as well as recipes, needlecraft instructions, planting ideas, hairstyling tips, and words she had not heard before. Her notebook bulged with suggestions for improvement: “22 new hairdos to make you even prettier this summer.” “Tissue paper gifts for every occasion.” “Cooking with offal.” “i before e except after c.”

“Elle est la plus belle mere,” James sometimes said. And when he did he blushed and fell silent, as if in contemplation of something sacred.

Byron dressed in his gray flannel shorts and summer T‑shirt. His school shirt was almost new, and he had to tug to fasten the buttons. Having secured his knee-length socks with homemade garters, he headed downstairs. The wood-paneled walls shone dark as conkers.

“I’m not talking to anyone but you, darling,” sang his mother’s voice.

She stood at the opposite end of the hallway at her telephone table, already dressed. Beside her, Lucy waited for her plaits to be tied with ribbon. The air was thick with Vim and Pledge polish, and it was a reassuring smell in the way that fresh air was reassuring. As Byron passed, his mother kissed her fingertips and pressed them to his forehead. She was only a fraction taller than he.

“It’s just me and the children,” she said into the mouthpiece. The windows behind her were opaque white.

In the kitchen Byron sat at the breakfast bar and unfolded a clean napkin. His mother was talking to his father. He rang at the same time every morning, and every morning she told him she was listening.

“Oh, today I’ll do the usual. The house, the weeding. Tidying after the weekend. It’s supposed to get hot.”

Released from her mother’s hands, Lucy skipped to the kitchen and hoicked herself up onto her stool. She tipped the box of Sugar Stars over her Peter Rabbit bowl. “Steady,” said Byron as she reached for the blue jug. He watched the splashy flow of milk in the rough vicinity of her cereal. “You might spill, Lucy,” he said, although he was being polite. She already had.

“I know what I’m doing, Byron. I don’t need help.” Every word of Lucy’s sounded like a neat little attack on the air. She replaced the jug on the table. It was vast in her hands. Then she slotted a wall of cereal boxes around her bowl. Byron could see only the flaxen crest of her head.

From the hall came their mother’s voice. “Yes, Seymour. She’s all polished.” Byron assumed that they were discussing the new Jaguar.

“Please could I have the Sugar Stars, Lucy?”

“You are not supposed to have Sugar Stars. You must have your fruit salad and your healthy Alpen.”

“I’d like to read the box. I’d like to look at the picture of Sooty.”

“I am reading the boxes.”

“You don’t need all of them at once,” he said gently. “And anyway you can’t read, Luce.”

“Everything’s as it should be,” came their mother’s voice from the hallway. She gave a fluttery laugh.

Byron felt a notch of something hot in his stomach. He tried to remove a cereal box, just one, before Lucy could stop him, but her hand flew up as he was sliding it away. The milk jug shot sideways, there was a resounding smash, and the new floor was suddenly a wash of white milk and blue pins of china. The children stared, aghast. It was almost time to clean their teeth.

Their mother was in the room within moments. “No one move!” she called. She held up her hands as if she were halting traffic. “You could get hurt!” Byron sat so still his neck felt stiff. As she made her way to the cleaning cupboard, balancing on tiptoes, her arms stretched out, her fingers pointed, the floor swished and snapped beneath her feet.

“That was your fault, Byron,” said Lucy.

Diana rushed back with the mop and bucket, and the dustpan and brush. She twisted the mop in soapy water and dragged it through the pool of liquid. With a glance at her watch, she swept the broken bits of china into a dry patch and scooped them into the dustpan. The last splinters she scraped up with her fingers and shook out over the bin. “All done,” she said brightly. It was then that she noticed her left palm. It was cut with crimson, like spilling stripes.

“Now you’ve got blood,” said Lucy, who was both appalled and delighted by physical injury.

“It’s nothing,” insisted their mother, but the blood was slithering down her wrist and, despite her bib apron, had made several spots on the hem of her skirt. “Nobody move!” she called again, turning on her heels and rushing out of the room.

“We’ll be late,” said Lucy.

“We’re never late,” said Byron. It was a rule of their father’s. An Englishman should always be punctual.

When Diana reappeared she had changed into a mint-green dress and matching lambswool cardigan. She had wound her hand with a bandage so that it looked like a small paw and had applied her strawberry-red lipstick.

“Why are you still sitting there?” she cried.

“You told us not to move,” said Lucy.

Clip, clip, echoed her heels across the hallway as the children raced after her. Their blazers and school hats hung from hooks above their school shoes. Diana scooped their satchels and PE bags into her arms.

“Come along,” she called.

“But we haven’t cleaned our teeth.”

Their mother failed to answer. Swinging open the front door, she darted into the shroud of mist. Byron and Lucy had to rush outside to find her.

There she stood, a slight silhouette against the garage door. She studied her watch, her left wrist clamped between the thumb and fingers of her right hand, as if time were a small cell and she was examining it through a microscope.

“It’s going to be all right,” she said. “If we hurry, we can make up time.”

Cranham House was a Georgian residence of pale stone that shone bone-white in full summer sun and pink as flesh on a winter morning. There was no village. There was only the house and the garden and then the moor. The building sat with its back resolutely set against the mass of wind, sky, and earth that loomed behind, and made Byron think of a home that wished it had been built elsewhere, in acres of flat English parkland, for instance, or on the gentle banks of a stream. The advantage of the setting, his father said, was that it was private. This was what James called an understatement. You had to drive at least three miles to find a neighbor. Between the gardens and the first slopes of the moor was a meadow with a large pond, and then a belt of ash trees. A year ago the water had been fenced in and the children were forbidden to play there.

The gravel drive popped beneath the wheels of the Jaguar. The mist was like a hood over Byron’s eyes. It stole the color and edges from even the closest things. The top lawn, the herbaceous borders and rose pagodas, the fruit trees, the beech hedging, the vegetable plot, the cutting beds and picket gate, they were all gone. The car turned left and carved its path toward the upper peaks. No one spoke. Diana sat straining forward over the wheel.

Up on the moor, conditions were even worse. That morning there was no dividing line between hills and sky. The car headlamps bored shallow holes into the blanket of white. Occasionally a watery group of cattle or a protruding branch took shape, and Byron’s heart gave a bounce as his mother swerved to avoid them. Once Byron had told James that the trees were so scary on the moor they could be ghosts, and James had frowned. That was like poetry, James had said, but it was not real, just as a talking detective dog was not real on the television. They passed the iron gates to Besley Hill, where the mad people lived. As the wheels of the Jaguar rumbled over the cattle grid, Byron breathed a sigh of relief. Then, approaching the town, they turned a corner and braked hard.

“Oh no,” he said, sitting tall. “What’s happened now?”

“I don’t know. A traffic jam.” It was the last thing they needed.

His mother lifted her fingers to her teeth and ripped off a shred of her nail.

“Is it because of the mist?”

Again: “I don’t know.” She pulled at the handbrake.

“I think the sun is up there somewhere,” he said helpfully. “It will burn this off soon.”

There were cars blocking the road as far as they could see, all the way into the veil of cloud. To their left the dull silhouette of a burned-out vehicle marked the entrance to the Digby Road Estate. They never went that way. Byron saw his mother glance over.

“We’re going to be late,” wailed Lucy.

Snapping down the handbrake, Diana pushed the car into first gear with a crunch, yanked at the wheel, and accelerated toward the left. They were heading straight for Digby Road. She didn’t even mirror, signal, maneuver.

At first the children were too stunned to speak. They passed the burned-out car. The glass of the windows was smashed, and the wheels, doors, and engine were gone so that the car was like a charred skeleton. Byron hummed gently because he didn’t want to think about that.

“Father says we must never go this way,” said Lucy. She smothered her face with her hands.

“It’s a shortcut through council housing,” Diana said. “I’ve been this way before.” She eased her foot down on the accelerator.

There was no time to consider what she had said: that, despite their father’s rule, she had been this way before. Digby Road was worse than Byron had imagined. In places it wasn’t even tarmacked. The mist was glued to the rows of houses so that they reached ahead, dull and indistinct, and then appeared to disintegrate. Pieces of rubbish choked the gutters: rubble, bags, blankets, boxes, it was hard to tell what it was. Occasionally washing lines appeared, strung with sheets and clothes that held no color.

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Reading Group Guide

1. The attempt to achieve perfection is central to both Diana’s and Byron’s behavior. Has the novel changed your perception of what it may mean to be ‘perfect’?

2. Rachel Joyce portrays time as a slippery and unpredictable concept. Has this affected your attitude towards the ways in which we measure the paths of our lives?

3. Responsibility is a theme that plays a key part in the novel. Who do you believe holds the greatest responsibility for the accident?

4. Is Jim’s mental illness the inevitable result of the events of his childhood?

5. Diana says, ‘I’m beginning to think chaos is underrated.’ Do you agree?

6. Byron identifies the moment at which he no longer considers himself to be a child. How does the novel question traditional definitions of childhood and parenthood?

7. Rachel Joyce writes beautiful descriptions of Cranham Moor and the English landscape. What is the significance of the natural world in the novel?

8. What is the significance of class in the relationship between Beverley and Diana?

9. Several characters struggle with depression and obsessive-compulsive behavior in the novel. How effectively do you feel mental disorders are portrayed?

10. Diana believes that the course of her life is determined by destiny. What part does spiritual belief play in the novel, and do you agree that our actions cannot influence our own fates?

11. Seymour and Andrea Lowe express strong views about feminism. How does Rachel Joyce represent the role of women in the novel?

12. How does Rachel Joyce represent the different time periods of the novel? Are there echoes from 1972 in the present or is it a world and time that has disappeared without trace?

13. Diana is lonely despite having a family and friends; Jim experiences intense loneliness. What do you think makes people feel connected to each other, and what creates fulfilling relationships?

14. Byron and James Lowe are best friends as boys, and the employees at Mr Meade’s café form bonds of kinship. How does Rachel Joyce represent friendship, and what do you think it means to be a true friend?

15. Who is the most powerful character in the novel, and why?

16. Eileen and Jim are damaged, in different ways, by their pasts. To what extent do you feel their private pain is transformed through the act of sharing?

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 22 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 8, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    Powerful, Dark

    Strangely unique, or brilliantly twisted drama that slowly unfolds, crumb by crumb to leave me speechless, Perfect by Rachel Joyce doesn’t fit neatly into a prescribed genre and I love authors who color outside the lines with bold strokes! Scientists have decided that there must be two seconds added to time, no big deal, right? But for young Byron, those two seconds were enough time to have his life slowly implode around him, mentally overpowering his sense of well-being and ease. But were these two seconds the cause or merely the straws that finally broke the camel’s back? Were there events in Byron’s life that could have been avoided if those two seconds never existed? They have become his obsession, and festering thought that leaves holes in the fabric of the ma he was to become. Could anyone see this coming or was he adrift in a world that had its own problems, from his nervous and medicated mother to his absent and cold father? The only person Byron could count on for wisdom was his best friend, James, another child, better adjusted, more daring and fascinated by life’s twists, unlike Byron, who saw darkness in everything.

    Dark and edgy, Perfect takes the reader spiraling down the path that is Byron’s life, one step at a time, as seen through his eyes with his limited understanding. Imagine learning that people will deceive, they will take and take until there is nothing left, they will misunderstand, and you have nowhere to go for your safe haven, no rock to lean on in a world far beyond your understanding.

    Rachel Joyce draws the reader in with each word, each scene, each event, making no apologies for holding you captive in an uncomfortable situation. Well written, well-paced, dramatic reading!

    I received an ARC edition in exchange for my honest review from Random House Publishing Group - Random House

    9 out of 11 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 22, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    1970's England. Fancy jaguars parked in the garages of upperclas

    1970's England. Fancy jaguars parked in the garages of upperclass suburban homes. Mothers in dainty white gloves wiping the sugar off their children's mouths. Fathers returning on the weekends with their briefcases in one hand, while expecting a shot of scotch from the bottle in the cabinet, in the other. This is the scene in which the primary portion of Perfect is set.

    Upon witnessing a terrible lapse of time and in awareness, Byron Hemmings is caught in between the worlds of childhood and adulthood, as he is reluctantly forced to make a choice: reveal this secret about his precious, faultless mother, Diana, or keep quiet in his own mind forever. When his genius friend, James, excitedly concocts a plan to fix this intangible error, Operation Perfect is born; as the judgment of two adolescent boys goes, the procedure will either go according to plan, just as imagined in their hands... or it will end it utter disaster.

    Byron's balmy, yet increasingly paranoiac summer days, are interspersed with Jim's portion of the story, set in a bitter present-day winter. Jim is a middle-aged obsessive-compulsive, who lives in a van, who works as a busboy, and whose condition worsens when reminiscing about his past and his haunting experience at Besley Hill, the sanitarium he was shoved into as a teenager.

    The two seemingly unrelated narratives catch up to each other in a collision of time; they swerve together and explode into one another in a fateful, alarming twist that will leave readers breathless. For the majority of the novel, however, the prose is—however flowery and fanciful—languidly, almost sluggishly, set. I found Joyce's writing enjoyable, but very thick and puzzling, especially in the first half. Almost Ian McEwan-esque, her prose isn't particularly difficult to get through, but at times it was just thoroughly boring, which is why it took me a while to finish.

    In characterization, in plot, and in tone, however, Perfect is a masterpiece. Each of the characters, even the ones that only make small appearances, are so vivid and intimately portrayed. Readers will cherish the characters they are meant to like, and loathe the ones they are meant to dislike. The eerily calm but inherently alarming mood sets up a domestically freakish story; while plain and placid in technique and style, the undertones of Perfect not only illuminate upon values of mistakes, redemption, and the human condition, but also bewilder, perplex. This is definitely a book that makes you think hard.

    Pros: Substantial, exquisite writing // Contains one of the most elegantly executed, shocking plot twists ever // Deeply meaningful // The way Byron's mind runs in fascinating // All the characters are fabulously depicted; I fell in love with the protagonists and hated the antagonists deeply

    Cons: Very confusing at first // Moves extremely slowly, even in the end // I liked the prose but it was a little sludgy

    Verdict: The injustices of adulthood and the restrictive bindings of upperclass society are brought to light in Rachel Joyce's newest British novel. Byron Hemmings's brilliantly fleshed, intimately portrayed character will make you think twice about the role of children, the responsibility of—or vindication from—accidents, and the faults of trust—the faults of humanity. One young boy's naïveté and misplaced guilt, as well as his mother's faultless crime, ignite this slow deterioration of an outwardly immaculate, perfect household. With grand allusions to the philosophy of time and the significance of deep thinking, Perfect questions the disastrous consequences of our every choice.

    Rating: 8 out of 10 hearts (4 stars): An engaging read that will be worth your while; highly recommended.

    Source: Complimentary copy provided by publisher via tour publicist in exchange for an honest and unbiased review (thank you, Random House and TLC!).

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 16, 2014

    ¿Sometimes it is easier, he thinks, to live out the mistakes we

    “Sometimes it is easier, he thinks, to live out the mistakes we have made than to summon the energy and imagination to repair them”




    Perfect is the second novel by bestselling British author, Rachel Joyce. In the heat of the 1972 English summer, Byron Hemmings, an intense and thoughtful eleven-year-old boy, is worried. His best friend (and the smartest boy in school), James Lowe has told him two seconds are to be added to time. He understands it is necessary, but can’t shake a feeling of terror. When those two seconds appear to result in a car accident involving Diana Hemmings’ perfect Jaguar, Byron worries incessantly about the consequences and, despite his best efforts to follow the meticulous plans James makes, his known universe begins to unravel. 




    Joyce uses two narrators to tell her story: young Byron relates the events of that 1972 summer; Jim, a man in his fifties whose life is governed by rituals, intersperses his narration of his present day life (currently being disrupted by a red-headed cook uttering profanities) with memories of earlier times and how he came to live most of his life in a mental institution. These narratives approach a common point, gradually revealing the summer’s tragic conclusion.   




    Joyce renders the feel of the seventies summer and the present day winter with great skill. Her descriptive prose is often breathtaking: “The sun was not yet fully risen and, caught in the low weak shaft of light, the dew shone silver over the meadow although the crust of earth beneath was hard and cracked. The ox-eye daisies made white pools on the lower hills while every tree sprang a black leak away from the sun’s light. The air smelt new and green like mint” and “A flock of gulls flew east, rising and falling, as if they might clean the sky with their wings” and  “With a clutter of wings a flock of starlings lifts into the air, unravelling and lengthening like black ribbon” are just a few samples.




    Her characters are appealing and the reader cannot help having sympathy for their situation: Diana’s feelings of inadequacy, Byron’s need to protect his beloved mother (“Like a splinter in his head, the truth was always there, and even though he tried to avoid it by being careful, sometimes he forgot to be careful and there it was”), Jim’s attempts to be normal (“No one knows how to be normal, Jim. We’re all just trying our best. Sometimes we don’t have to think about it and other times it’s like running after a bus that’s already halfway down the street.”) Byron’s anxiety is palpable and Joyce portrays mental conditions like depression and OCD with both insight and humour. 




    She gives her characters words of wisdom: “They’re playing with us, aren’t they?.....The gods. We think we understand, we’ve invented science, but we haven’t a clue. Maybe the clever people are not the ones who think they’re clever. Maybe the clever people are the ones who accept they know nothing” and “Sometimes caring for something already growing is more perilous than planting something new”. On more than one occasion, the reader may well be moved to tears. Fans of Joyce’s work will not be disappointed and newcomers will want to seek out her other books. A moving and uplifting read. 

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 4, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    The novel is told in two alternating voices, one is young Byron

    The novel is told in two alternating voices, one is young Byron and the other is an older man named Jim (this is also 40 years later). Byron seems completely perplexed on how to protect his mother from what she has done. The poor boy is consumed by it. His father, is only home on the weekends and seems to have very little to do with his children and is only interested in people being impressed by how well he takes care of his wife. For the most part, I really did not like his dad, but later during a father/son discussion I understood him a bit more and felt some sympathy for him. With his father being who he is, Byron is essentially on his own to take care of his mother and his younger sister, Lucy. His best friend, James seems to 'help' from a distance--but they are so far over their heads. Things go from bad to worse when Beverly begins showing up in the story. Her character brings out a different part of Byron's mother, Diana. Diana begins to unravel and Byron is left alone to try and put everything right.




    The story of Jim is an odd addition. I wasn't sure of his connection to the story. Jim is an older man who had been in and out of a psychiatric hospital where he received years of electroshock therapy. His memory is full of holes, he lives in a van and is compulsively performing rituals. As I read along, I was sure the stories would merge, but I was never really sure how. The further into the novel the more I wanted for Jim, I wanted a happily ever after.




    As I first began reading, I just wasn't sure what to think of it. The novel is very well written and has such a wonderful flow you don't realize just how deep into the story you've read. I felt frustrated that there were no adults to help Byron out, he is so alone. I wanted his mother and father to snap out of their own little worlds and realize these kids needed them. I was sad for Byron, sad for Jim. The entire cast of characters are flawed and yet I wanted only the best for them. I found PERFECT to be a sad, but somehow beautiful story. Everything comes to light in the end and there is more I want to say, but it would only spoil the story and I can't have that. Pick up a copy of PERFECT, you won't be sorry!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 5, 2014

    Anonymous

    Amazing! I enjoyed Harold Fry enormously....this was better, I think. And think I will...it will be a long time before Perfect leaves my thoughts!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 28, 2014

    I don't have time to ready many books, but I decided to give thi

    I don't have time to ready many books, but I decided to give this one a try during my recent vacation. I was quite disappointed. First of all, it was hard for me to wrap my head around the "Englishness" of this book. I could eventually figure some things out, but all in all, the entire book seemed so foreign in some ways, and not just by some of the English words and phrases. I found it incredibly hard to believe that a young boy, no matter what age, country, or time period, would NOT tell his mother what he noticed during that drive to school. Another thing that was confusing was the way the two boy characters would suddenly begin speaking French. I DON'T KNOW FRENCH! Her technique of having alternate chapters describe another plot line was intriguing at first, but the two stories took way too long to intersect and make sense. The relationship between the boy's parents seemed odd, too.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 28, 2014

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 17, 2014

    Caroline to kevin

    Im here if you want to talk. i am not going to force you... but i hope you know that i only came back because of how much i love you.

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  • Posted May 25, 2014

    Did not like it

    My Book Club read this book. Half thought it was OK, the other half did not like it. I was in the group that did not like it. I never got the connection of the two story lines until the end, and at that, it left me cold. Most of the people in the story were really screwed up. I just never related to the characters or the story line.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 12, 2014

    Disappointed

    I so enjoyed R. Joyce's first book and was excited to read her new one. While the story started out pleasant enough, it became dark and disturbing, so much so I had to skim the last one hundred or so pages. Don't waste your money.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 22, 2014

    Well written and insightul. Thought provoking!

    A great read that will make you stop and think.

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  • Posted March 4, 2014

    It would be hard to think of a better name for this book, for Ra

    It would be hard to think of a better name for this book, for Rachel Joyce's Perfect was, in fact, practically perfect. It was a beautifully written, evocative exploration of the power of magical thinking, the nature of friendship, and the unanticipated consequences of mistakes.

    The story is told in alternating chapters occurring in 1972 and today. I can't say much more without revealing a significant plot twist; suffice it to say that this structure successfully kept the tension at a steady boil until the very end. In this respect, Perfect should appeal to readers who enjoyed Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, even though the subject matter of the two books is very different.

    I loved the "hook" of the added two seconds. The prologue immediately captured my attention and drew me into the lives of Byron, Diana, and James. Those considering this book will, therefore, be able to tell immediately from the sample on Amazon or Barnes & Noble whether they will enjoy it.

    Joyce was able to capture key aspects of each character's personality in concise visual images. Had she written only the following two lines about Byron's father, I would have known all I needed to know:

    "He nodded the way his father did when he was stating a fact, as if he was so correct even his own head had to agree."

    "If Byron ever tried to hug him, and sometimes he wished he could, the embrace ran away at the last minute and became a handshake."

    Can't you just see that embrace running away? Here is Byron during a conversation with James:

    "Every time he began a sentence he was afraid the wrong words would escape from his mouth. Consequently he had to keep examining them on their way out, as if he was checking their hands for cleanliness. It was exhausting."

    From these three short sentences, I learned a great deal about Byron's self-esteem, his relationship with his best friend James, and the "perfect" life led in Cranham House.

    I did not realize before I began reading Perfect that it was written by the same author who wrote The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. I will certainly be seeking out that book in the near future.

    I received a free copy of Perfect through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 26, 2014

    Surprising

    Great read! A little slow in spots, but totally worth pushing through. The end was the perfect twist. Maybe not a book for everyone, but for those of us who love a surprise ending, great. Stayed with me for days.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 22, 2014

    Wasr Waste of r Waste of tome Waste od Waste of time

    Sorry book dont buy

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 21, 2014

    Absorbing!

    This was a very interesting & well thought out plot involving 2 boys & the concept

    of time & how it may affect the outcome of certain events which take place.

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  • Posted January 24, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    Perfect certainly made an impact right from the start. It's been

    Perfect certainly made an impact right from the start. It's been a while since the beginning of a novel has so fiercely grabbed my attention.

    I felt fully invested in these characters, most notably Jim and Byron's mother. I was taken aback by the Hemmings' entire world, the way the people in their social circle behaved. And I have to say, getting to know Byron's mother through his eyes was sometimes downright painful.

    Something that really struck me was how the title, that word perfect, carried different meanings at various points throughout the novel. Whether it was the stress of trying to be (or at least appear) perfect, or learning that what seems perfect oftentimes isn't, Joyce pulls back layer after layer behind the depth of this single word.

    There are two stories running parallel, but I had no idea exactly where things were headed or how everything would play out. I didn't expect the ending at all and when the two stories met, I was overwhelmed by the profundity.

    Joyce's writing drew me in; it felt good to read her words. The story flowed naturally and I had trouble putting the book down. I can't wait to read more of her work.

    I received a copy of this book from the publisher via TLC Book Tours in exchange for an honest review. I did not receive any other compensation for this review.

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    Posted September 27, 2014

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    Posted September 19, 2014

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    Posted January 17, 2014

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    Posted February 8, 2014

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