Kathleen Solson, the editor-in-chief of an international newspaper based in Rome, suspects her husband is having an affair. Solson has always ranked people by ‘intelligence’, her ex notes. Maybe she is calculating. Maybe she needs attention. In Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists we are given a glimpse of Solson’s life, as well as those of a stringer, a copy editor, an obit writer, a business reporter, a reader and more. The novel is a series of associated character portraits, alongside a slim narrative of the newspaper’s rise, changes and plateau – its inability to adapt to the times, to continue to be relevant; to support itself, its vision and its staff. Rachman’s front page is given to the players: the superbly ordinary men and women in the newspaper’s orbit. The backdrop to this novel is the news-in-print: world events
Highlights include lonely, aging Paris correspondent Lloyd Burko, who has no computer and lets his younger wife ‘bit by bit’ move into the arms of the man across the hall; corrections editor Herman Cohen, who has pinned some strange dream on his old friend Jimmy being a writer, being a genius – and now disappointment chokes him up; reader Ornella De Monterechi who, over the years, has slipped slowly from reality into the past by reading the paper like a book.
They’re all lonely, and more, they’re all reluctant. Reluctance is a big theme here – the paper refusing to go online, characters refusing to move forward, accept, speak up, fight, or, in the case of publisher Oliver Ott in the final portrait, do anything. He is apathetic not only to news, but to life.
The Imperfectionists is thematically consistent, and the characters hold interest, though some of the chapter endings feel a little too punchy, a little too dramatic for the sake of it. The quieter endings, such as Lloyd Burko’s, in the first chapter (a reconciliation, of sorts) are more effective. Debut American author Rachman’s writing is mature and gentle, with windows to hope and to doom among this collective of characters connected to a crumbling publication.