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Perfect Reader: A Novel

Perfect Reader: A Novel

2.5 11
by Maggie Pouncey

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In this enchanting debut novel, Maggie Pouncey brings to life the unforgettable Flora Dempsey, the headstrong and quick-witted only child of Lewis Dempsey, a beloved former college president and famous literary critic in the league of Harold Bloom.

At the news of her father’s death, Flora quits her big-city magazine job and returns to Darwin, the quaint


In this enchanting debut novel, Maggie Pouncey brings to life the unforgettable Flora Dempsey, the headstrong and quick-witted only child of Lewis Dempsey, a beloved former college president and famous literary critic in the league of Harold Bloom.

At the news of her father’s death, Flora quits her big-city magazine job and returns to Darwin, the quaint New England town where she grew up, to retreat into the house he has left her, filled as it is with reminders of him. Even weightier is her appointment as her father’s literary executor. It seems he was secretly writing poems at the end of his life—love poems to a girlfriend Flora didn’t know he had. Flora soon discovers that this woman has her own claims on Lewis’s poetry and his memory, and in the righteousness of her loss and bafflement at her father’s secrets—his life so richly separate from her own in ways she never guessed—Flora is highly suspicious of her. Meanwhile, Flora is besieged by well-wishers and literary bloggers alike as she tries to figure out how to navigate it all: the fate of the poems, the girlfriend who wants a place in her life, her memories of her parents’ divorce, and her own uncertain future.

At once comic and profound, Perfect Reader is a heady, uplifting story of loneliness and of the spur to growth that grief can be. Brimming with energy and with the elbow-patchy wisdom of her still-vivid father, Flora’s story will set her free to be the “perfect reader” not just of her father’s life but of her own as well.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Sarah L. Courteau
Pouncey's plot is low-key…But her portrait of a sensitive girl numbed by loss and confused because life didn't follow the trajectory suggested by her upbringing is intelligent and honest. So is her treatment of the emotional knobbiness of grief. And her take on life in a liberal college town (smug yet unhappy) and in the literary world (snide yet seductive) is deliciously spot-on.
—The Washington Post
Kirkus Reviews
Fathers, daughters and poetry are ruefully, wittily combined in an introspective literary debut. The soul-searching of a willful daddy's girl who has just lost her father forms the core of Pouncey's accomplished novel, which weaves bookish themes into a getting-of-wisdom tale set in the fictional New England college town of Darwin. Only-child Flora Dempsey returns to Darwin, the place where her parents' marriage dissolved, after inheriting the house, dog, money and, as literary executor, unpublished poems of her father Lewis, distinguished ex-president of Darwin College. The poems, written in praise of his new love, fellow-academic Cynthia, land Flora with dilemmas both personal and critical as she considers their publication. While reviewing her troubled childhood, loyalty to both parents, best friendship with a girl she harmed and attitudes to academe and literature, Flora also starts a relationship with Paul, Lewis's lawyer. Pouncey's beady perceptions, voiced through Flora's none-too-sweet nature, render the narrative dryly comic as well as psychologically and philosophically astute. Whether or not to publish is both a storm in a teacup and a signifier of Flora's maturity as she tries to balance her own perversity with the motives, allegiances and characters of those around her, including her dead father, on whose behalf she will eventually make good decisions. Tender, smart and often wicked, especially on the subject of college towns, Pouncey's first is impressively mature and entertaining.
Publishers Weekly
This imaginative debut takes a profound look at the connection between words on the page and the infinite interpretations for a reader. For heroine Flora Dempsey, the father-daughter bond is a further complication. Flora moves back to her picturesque New England hometown after the death of her father, former president of the town’s local college, where she discovers that her inheritance includes the role of literary executor. Lewis Dempsey, an academic writer, has left behind a manuscript of erotic poems written to Cynthia, his lover, whose existence is a surprise to Flora. Cynthia, meanwhile, attempts to become part of Flora’s life, wanting friendship—and publication of the poems. Overwhelmed, Flora navigates her father’s poetry, retreats into her memories of childhood and her parents’ divorce, and poignantly contemplates the acts of reading and writing. Pouncey has skillfully created a portrait of smalltown academia, where the relationships between reader and text are just as elusive and complex as the relationships between father and daughter, husband and wife, or between two lovers. (June)
Library Journal
After her father's death, underachiever Flora Dempsey returns to Darwin, the New England college town where her eminent father taught English literature. She inherits not only his house and his dog but also his unpublished poetry, written to a girlfriend Flora didn't know he had. In a year of grieving, Flora revisits her childhood memories of her parents' divorce and the best friend who abandoned her following a terrible accident while debating whether to publish her father's manuscript. Her budding relationship with her father's lawyer becomes a casualty of a breach of trust that breaks Flora out of her inertia and leads her to leave Darwin. The academic setting is wryly rendered, comic but slightly sympathetic. Flora is a late bloomer, a late twentysomething still struggling to find her place in the world; dealing with being her father's literary executor is the push that she needs to accept responsibility for her own development. VERDICT readers who like books that poke a bit of fun at the rarefied academic atmosphere combined with a coming-of-age story will enjoy this charming first novel.—Amy Ford, St. Mary's Cty. Lib., Lexington Park, MD

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Random House
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Read an Excerpt

Borrowed Houses

It was after her father’s death Flora returned to Darwin. Returning—with all the criminal associations—to the scene of her growing up had been a task she’d put off, rebuffing her father’s invitations. “You don’t go home much, do you?” friends would ask. Home—that fuzzy image of innocence, that haven of recognition. The place you long for when adrift.

Her father’s voice in her mind’s ear paused her: So all I had to do, Flo, to get you to Darwin was die? But it did not stop her. She caught a taxi to the bus station, and took the bus to its terminus, a desolate former mill town thirty minutes from Darwin, and then she loaded herself and her body bag of a suitcase into a country cab—more properly called a car, a crumby minivan, with nothing marking it as professional in any  way—now bringing her to her father’s house.

She did not sublet her apartment in the city; there  wasn’t time, and the thought of someone else sleeping in her bed and filling her closets made her  anxious— an only child, she’d never liked to share. She knew what people did in other people’s houses, and did not want it done to her. And who knew how long she’d be gone. But she had taken the time to pack all the things she liked best, leaving the B garments behind. She packed her three favorite pairs of jeans of varying degrees of tightness and wear, a pair of black corduroys, two  A-line skirts, one  high- slitted denim pencil skirt, and a black silk dress she’d bought several years back upon receiving her first reasonable paycheck, imagining a life of cocktail parties and ciga­rette holders, and worn once. She packed socks and tights, three delicate wool cardigans, one milky white  cable- knit cashmere turtle­neck, five  long- sleeved cotton shirts of assorted saturated colors, clogs, her turquoise  old- lady slippers, sweatpants and two concert T-shirts she’d had since high school, boots (one pair heeled, one flat), her six sexy pairs of underwear and her four unsexy, old, com­forting pairs of underwear, and various scarves and hats. She packed a short, beaded  1920s- style flapper  dress—a prime example of her favorite category of clothing: inappropriate for every occa­sion (and thus equally appropriate for all occasions)—and a pair of pewter-colored four-inch heels of the same category. She packed soap, shampoo, and other ablutions (as if she were traveling to the tundra, where such items could not be procured, and not to New England, where they could, but then they might be inferior), and, in the midst of the vanities, she buried the folder of her father’s poems. If I lose this bag, she thought, forcing the zipper across its length, I’ll be very sad.

Darwin was three hours from everywhere: Flora was unready to arrive. It was dusk, and quiet, her country cab passing the odd sta­tion wagon loping home.  Darwin—the one place in America SUVs had not yet colonized. Perhaps they were against the law. Here the indigenous station wagon still reigned supreme over his niche. Here talk of carbon footprint was as routine as talk of gas prices elsewhere. The town of Darwin knew unhappiness—the Darwini­ans self- satisfied but not content. Thick with academics and their broods—idlers, ruminators, moseyers. Thoughtful people, think­ing thoughts. No one hurrying down the few placid streets. Hadn’t the Darwinians anything urgent to attend to? Yes, they had not. Poets and the world romanticize being  idle—the boon of free time praised, guarded, envied—but anyone who has idled for a living knows the damaging effects it can have on the moods.

The minivan was overheated, stifling. The window  wouldn’t budge. Flora’s hair itched with sweat. She was being cooked alive. She took off her hat, uncoiled her scarf, unbuttoned her coat. She was a child. Her clothes, hidden all day beneath layers— why did one prefer to keep one’s coat on in public transit?—announced a com­plete regression. The faded black sweatshirt, the army green pants with the patched knees and safety-pinned waist, the red sneakers that she dearly loved. “Not a day over sixteen,” her father had said of her face. At what age did the compliment of youth expire?

The driver tried talk: “What brings you to Darwin?” He had the overeager voice of one stranger requiring something of another.

“You know,” Flora said. “Family.” But once she’d said the words, they sounded unkind. The man’s face ravaged, ungroomed. It was possible he did not know much of family. A woman in his life would have suggested a haircut weeks ago.

Still, the unkindness hanging in the close air was preferable to chat. She glanced at her cell phone to check the time. It was now “rejecting” text  messages—an apt technological gesture—its tiny brain at capacity, and Flora thought with pleasure of her friends agonizing over compassionate abbreviated condolences, only to have them bounce right back to their machines as though repellent.

Her father’s house sat at the edge of the town proper, a  ten-minute walk from the Darwin College campus. An old farmhouse, it had recently been repainted an excellent taupe. When, exactly? Even through the fouled window of the car, it had never looked prettier, or she  hadn’t remembered it that way. A pretty house, cer­tainly, but she’d thought of it as resigned and downtrodden in that way peculiar to academics and their surroundings. But her father, it seemed, had even taken up gardening, or else hired someone to work on the historically neglected flower beds circling the house like a moat, the odd stem standing its ground as though it  didn’t know it was November. The house was a relic from a happier time. The house was showing off. The house was oblivious; it  hadn’t been informed of recent developments.

She overtipped the driver as an apology for her curtness and he hauled her morbid duffel to the  door—newly painted, slate blue. Flora hesitated, as at the door of an acquaintance, where she might not be welcome, or know anyone inside. The house of a sixty-eight­year-old retiree bachelor, a reclusive reader, an academic with no more classes or committees to order his life around. Would it be pathologically unkempt, like the foul apartments of boys she’d dated post-college, the disordered universe of men living alone?

Would it feel as though he’d dashed out for a haircut, or for dish soap, and could return at any moment? Or would the house have the aura of the abandoned, like a woman whose husband runs out to gas up the car and forgets to come home?

The house was hers, on paper.
Funny how death did that—made things yours.

It was a few years after Flora and her mother moved out, after they who had needed only one house suddenly needed two, after all that had gone wrong, that her father had finally left the President’s House and come here to this house he owned, giving up one of his worlds, the world of industrial stoves, and Betsy coming to work every day, a world where you had to dial 9 to get an outside line, as though it were an office, which of course it also was, a world of  life-size paintings of dead men and grand chandeliers and fire escapes, to return to the life of the full-time academic—the word full-time in this case meaning you had to show up four times a week for approximately two hours a pop. He’d loved it right away, his old farmhouse. “I like a house that tells you how it feels,” he said of its creaks and moans. In winter there was a fire always burning, in summer the windows thrown open. “I’m embowered,” he said in spring, the yellow green of leaves and buds filling every view. In high school, Flora had stayed there with him Tuesday nights, that old habit outlasting its necessity, her mother completely analyzed, for better or worse, and no longer fleeing Darwin weekly for the city. Her father’s house. A place she  visited—if she  visited—with a packed bag.

Inside, all appeared tidy. She dropped her bag in the kitchen, waiting.

“Hello?” she called, to disturb the silence. There you are, her father would say if he were there. “Here I am.”

She started with his study,  surveying—no need to linger now. Off the kitchen, browns and grays, a blend of woods, snug. Books on shelves like rows of crooked teeth. On the desk, tall piles of papers. But no reading glasses lying, arms crossed in wait, on the table by the Shaker chair. No forgotten encrusted cereal bowl. She skimmed her fingers across the old Smith Corona portable with its round green keys. Nothing. Entering the homes of other people was something Flora did for a living—or had done. She was adept at moving through other people’s spaces, taking inventory. A profes­sional snoop.

Back through the kitchen. No cottony coating of dust on the banister. Upstairs, the bed made, the duvet new and crisp and hotel- like. Not a single sock on the  wide- planked floor. No bath mat on the terracotta tiles of the bathroom floor, but folded and hung neatly on the side of the tub like a coat hung over an arm. No unearthly blue toothpaste smudges on the sink, only gleaming porcelain. Had her father even lived there? Had anyone? In her job, she’d had to orchestrate the removal of the personal for photo shoots: She’d scoured living rooms for family snapshots, reclaimed refrigerators from the collage of a child’s artwork. Here, her work had been done for her.

The fridge, she thought. Back downstairs. She opened it and stared into cavernous  whiteness—still more nothing. Had he stopped eating? He had looked a little thinner, maybe, when she saw him last. The neatness was  disappointing—to have nothing to scrub, to fix, to set right. Then she saw the note, fixed to the refrig­erator door with a magnetic college mascot, the Darwin Dodo: “Dear Flora, Stopped by and straightened up a bit. I have Larks. I’m so sorry. Mrs. J.”

Larks, her father’s dog, short for Larkin, named for the poet. Flora had completely forgotten him. Were it not for Mrs. J., the dog, too, would be dead. Of course Mrs. J. would have thought to clean out the fridge and straighten up the house and feed and care for the dog, and the cloying neatness surrounding Flora was not a sign of her father’s life, just more proof of his death. Evidence kept pil­ing up. For a moment, she resented Mrs. J.’s thoughtfulness, her thoroughness. What if in her cleaning she had erased some sign her father left behind, some communiqué from the beyond he’d intended just for her?

Her father hadn’t died in the  house—a small relief. He’d gone to his old office to say hello and pick up some mail. While there, he’d cut short a conversation with Pat Jenkins, the English Department secretary, and gone into the bathroom abruptly. It was so unchar­acteristic of him, cutting short a good chat like that, and when he didn’t reemerge after fifteen minutes, Pat sent Jed Schwartz, an associate professor, in after him. Jed found him lying on the floor, bleeding from a gash on his forehead. It looked as though he’d passed out and hit his head on the sink. A horrible place to die, a bathroom—an embarrassing venue for such an important moment. He wouldn’t have liked that,  wouldn’t have written it that way. When Flora heard the details, she had tried to clarify, tried to undo: “You’re absolutely certain it was in the bathroom?” She’d gotten stuck on it for days, until her mother said, “Jesus, Flora, of all things to worry about.” But where mattered, just like when mat­tered, and how mattered.

The how he would have liked better. No humiliating, protracted illness. No slow, relentless degeneration. A colossal bang, a candle snuff. Sudden death—an expression from the world of sports. One day life being life and the next day it being something else. Flora would not have admitted it to herself before, but she’d long expected that if her father died, he would die in a car crash. He had loved driving and made long, senseless  drives—to the shore for a great lobster roll, to a neighboring state for a book he  couldn’t find in town, to the city to take her to lunch—back and forth all in a day, speeding like a bandit. Plenty of traffic tickets, even a course for delinquent drivers, but no fiery crash, only an internal inferno; Flora wrong again, her ability to know the future as inadequate as her understanding of the past.

When Pat Jenkins called Flora from the hospital pay phone and said the words heart attack, words that had always sounded not physical but  emotional—like a particularly acute heartbreak or an overabundance of fellow feeling, an attack of heart—she’d first been confused: car attack? Such things happened now, but on the news, not near home. But then Pat said it again, heart attack, and stressed how unexpected it was, how sudden, and the complete physicality struck Flora, the seizing, the constricting, the gasping, the collaps­ing. It struck her the way the ground struck her when, at age nine, she fell from the high branch on the apple tree in her backyard, “the break-your-nose branch,” as she and her best friend Georgia had called it.

Had Pat tried to reach her first at work? How did she have the number? In another life, with a different family, her mother would have been the one to break the news to Flora—to smash it, really, to cream the news. In this world, though, it was loyal Pat, the only per­son in the English Department her father could abide, the only one he went to talk to.

“He must have known something was wrong but  didn’t want to upset anyone, so he went off to be by himself,” Pat said. “He was a gentleman till the end.”

What was he, an animal going off to die alone? A gentlemanly heart attack. A courteous coronary. How civilized. Gentlemanly. That was one word for it, Flora thought, standing in the immacu­late kitchen in her childlike costume. Gentlemanly, proud, stupid, selfish—suicidal even. It bothered her that she  hadn’t known at the precise moment of his death,  hadn’t felt it. She liked to think of herself as someone who really knew people, a watcher, a noticer of others—particularly her parents. She knew them better than they knew themselves (better, maybe, than she knew herself ). In her fan­tasy of herself, she would have felt his absence. She would have experienced the sudden seizing just then, been gripped by a stab­bing pain in her head. She would have tripped at least, fallen and scraped a knee.
Instead, if you worked out the times, you’d find her in her apart­ment, inert before afternoon TV, watching an inspirational story about a woman who’d forgiven the man who viciously attacked her and left her for dead, claimed now even to love him, just as her father’s heart attacked him. The woman called the whole disaster “a real learning experience,” and whenever anyone called a disaster a learning experience, Flora wanted to stick her finger in her mouth and pretend to shoot her brains out. What did one learn from  di ­saster? What worth learning anyway? Perhaps at the very moment of his attack Flora made her life- mocking gesture, or lifted her mug of lukewarm coffee to her lips, debating whether it was worth another sip. She’d called in sick to the magazine again that day, the second time in three weeks. But Flora wasn’t sick, just tired, ris­ing from her bed at eleven-thirty, sleep-drunk. “If it’s not done by noon,” her father, who woke at dawn, had always said, “then to hell with it.”

She’d read about the parents of marines who died at war waiting to receive their son’s or daughter’s luggage, and when it finally arrived, rushing to unzip it, yearning for the scent of him or her, only to meet with the oily perfume of clean laundry, the heartbreak of erasure. It was marine policy to wash all clothes before returning them. Was that what she had  done— returned to Darwin to smell her father’s smell? If so, Mrs. J. had, marine- like, washed the man right out of his house. Or had she? Flora remembered clasping her arms around his neck, long ago, in that other house in Darwin; he had just returned from playing tennis, and smelled sweetly of sweat, and of orange juice. But the only trace of citrus in the house today came from the toxic lemon of cleaning solvents, a faint note of tea leaves sneaking out from underneath. Or maybe the smell of tea was a hallucination, a wish gone haywire in the brain.

It was teatime, wasn’t it? Had she come up to Darwin to visit her father, he would have put the kettle on in anticipation of her arrival. A manic, cheerful, boiling whistle might have welcomed her as she walked through the door. There would be milk in the fridge, and he would have prepared the mugs with a thin layer of it, two teaspoons of sugar for him and  three- quarters of one for her. He’d liked his tea sweet, the way she had as a child, but outgrew. He’d had a boyish love of sweets, his excitement at the prospect of a slice of cake uncommon in an adult. Had she come when he was alive, he would have made a plate of  cookies—dark chocolate on short­bread biscuits, his favorites. Why had she not come to see him? Would he have lived longer if she had come?

The answering machine on the counter blinked the number 3 at her. Calls to her father; calls to the dead. I’m sorry, he can’t come to the phone right now—could he get back to you never? Actually, he’s deceased at the moment—would you like to leave a message? Flora picked up the small white box and held it in the bowl of her hands. About the size of her father’s  heart—this thought accosted her. When she allowed herself to consider what had happened to him, she felt like fainting—a dissonant ring in her ears, a clouding overcrowding her eyes, a sickening yanking of the crown of her head  toward the ground. She yanked the cord out of the wall and threw the machine in the trash. She would regret that later. But then, she was in the regret business these days.

She had bought the machine for him years ago as a Christmas present. Exactly the wrong gift for him, but he had made himself a message, reluctantly asking callers he’d been lucky enough to miss to tell him who they were and what they wanted.

“You don’t have to use it,” she’d told him, seeing his good man­ners dueling it out with his lust for solitude, the two impulses equal and extreme.

“No, no,” he’d said. “It’ll be good for me. Important to keep one­self gently tethered to the outside world.”

But was that true? Maybe it was time to untether. To hell with good manners and the outside world.

Flora stood in the  shadow- darkening kitchen, still in her coat, her hands against the smooth butcher block of her father’s counter. She felt winded, and brittle. Her fingers were twigs; they could be snapped off. Her nails were as thin as paper. If only they could have been left behind, too. She could have scattered a trail of fingers and toes and other breakable bits and pieces out the window of the cab, like Hansel and Gretel hoping against hope to find their way back home.

As a child, Flora hated to be told to go to bed; to be expected to sleep while others sucked more life from the day was the height of unfairness. Now she longed for someone to send her to sleep. Sleep, she would sleep. But where? She  couldn’t sleep in the master bed­room, her father’s bed. There was a double bed in the little guest room on the ground floor, off the living room, but she  couldn’t sleep in the guest room. She’d stay where she always  stayed—if she stayed—in the room called “hers,” sleep in the narrow twin bed under the yellowing blanket that had once been new, and near perfect.

She left the body bag where it lay, and took herself up the nar­row back stairs, her fatigue the fatigue of the old, stepping, leaning, pausing, up to the small, neat room of dresser, desk, and bed, all the surfaces bare and buffed and signless. The lone ornamental object, a palm-size silver clock, read five-twenty-five. She opened the closet. It, too, was bare but for one small box she’d left behind years before. Flora was not a keeper of notes exchanged in long-ago classrooms. Her childhood  bedrooms—there were multiple—had not been preserved shrine-like, like those of some of her friends, friends with families like time  capsules; you checked on them ten years later and nothing had changed.

She pulled her feet out of her sneakers and let her coat slip to the ground, and she climbed into the tightly tucked sheets of the bed with her fraying clothing still on. She pushed her fragile hands between the safety of her knees. It was a canopy bed, the bed she’d dreamt of as a little girl and one day gotten. The canopy had long since disappeared, and now it was just a large boxy metal frame, the blueprint of a tomb. She closed her eyes. The sharp, shrill blare of the telephone (ring wasn’t the right word, was it?) startled her. Flora did not like to answer its assault. She never had, but now even less. The phone rang, with no machine to interrupt it, on and on, and then  stopped—almost violently, the sound vanishing, leaving behind the ghost of noise. 


From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Maggie Pouncey was born in New York City and grew up there and in Amherst, Massachusetts, and New Haven, Connecticut. She received her B.A. and M.F.A. from Columbia University and has taught writing at Columbia, the Bard Prison Initiative, and the New York City nonprofit Girls Write Now. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and son.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Perfect Reader 2.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
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