In 2009, Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her book, “Olive Kitteridge.” What made the book unique was that it contained 13 short stories whose connection was Olive Kitteridge, a prickly, 60-something retired math teacher.
This year, author Tom Rachman’s clever, engrossing novel “The Imperfectionists” is filled with short stories or chapters (depending on your view) all linked by an international English-language newspaper based in Rome.
In between the chapters, which each feature a different person connected to the paper, the story of the origin of the newspaper is woven in. The paper is the brainchild of Cyrus Ott, a wealthy American businessman who mysteriously leaves his home and family in Atlanta to start the paper in Rome.
Each chapter’s title comes from one of the newspaper’s headlines. The first chapter, titled “Bush Slumps to New Lows,” tells the story of Lloyd Burko, who was the former Paris correspondent for the paper.
Lloyd has been hit hard by the downturn in the newspaper industry. His freelance jobs have dried up, his much younger wife is seeing another man who lives across the hall from them, and his relationships with his children are non-existent.
He tries to reconnect with his son because he believes that his son’s government job may provide a lead for a story he can sell to the paper. Lloyd’s desperate attempt to make a comeback leads him down a slippery slope.
Arthur Gopal, the obituary writer in “World’s Oldest Liar Dies at 126,” reminded me of the character Milton in the movie “Office Space.” He’s on the fringes of the office life, exemplified by his desk being moved to the farthest corner of the office.
He disappears from the office for hours at a time to pick up his beloved daughter from school everyday. He takes her home, makes her a snack, and generally enjoys her company above all others.
Work for Arthur is an interruption in his real life: his life with his family. Arthur is dismayed to learn that he has to travel to Switzerland to interview a dying feminist author. He likes writing the obituaries because he doesn’t usually have to travel to write his section of the paper.
Arthur’s interaction with the writer is eye-opening for him, particularly after a tragedy hits his family.
Over the course of the 20-page story, the author does a wonderful job creating this fully formed character, who pulls off a surprisingly ambitious move at the end of his story.
Ruby Zaga in “Kooks With Nukes” is one of three copy editors at the paper. She has a little Milton in her as well, as her co-workers torment her by stealing her office chair when they aren’t completely ignoring her.
Ruby wants to be a part of the office gang, but no one speaks to her with any kindness. She has no friends outside of the office, and her unrequited crush on her boss’s husband leads to stalker-like behavior.
Every New Year’s Eve, Ruby checks into a fancy hotel in Rome and pretends to be a stranded American businesswoman. Rachman’s physical descriptions of Rome on New Year’s Eve give the reader a longing to visit this lovely, historic city.
In “The Sex Lives of Islamic Extremists,” we are introduced to young Winston Cheung, who is trying to get a job as the paper’s Cairo stringer. He is competing against veteran war correspondent Rich Snyder, who barrels into Winston’s life, taking over as he tries to get back into Iraq.
Winston describes Snyder this way: “Then he colonized. He stole my laptop. He has this strange power to trample me and make me feel obligated at the same time.” To say that Snyder is colorful is an understatement.
He is selfish, single-minded, blustering, and Winston is no match for him. He’s a fabulous character, blowing into the story like a desert sandstorm, wreaking havoc.
Chief Financial Officer Abbey Pinnola wields much power at the paper in “Market’s Crash Over Fears of China Showdown,” but is powerless in her love life. She searches for a man to love, but ends up with a lazy Irish artist who takes advantage of her.
Abbey typifies the woman who has given up on finding someone who deserves her love, and instead settles for what she has in front of her, and is grateful for it.
Many of the people in this book are sad and lonely, and they lead imperfect lives. Rachman tackles the recent troubles that have plagued newspapers: dwindling circulation and advertisers, layoffs and the general sense of doom that likely hovers over many newsrooms today.
Having never worked in a newsroom, I enjoyed his authentic insider’s view, as Rachman worked overseas in an English language newspaper. I was impressed by how he brought to vivid life so many characters in just 20 pages or so. I felt as though I really knew these people, and though I didn’t like all of them, I wanted to know their stories.
A warning for dog lovers: a scene at the end may be too difficult for some to read. I give “The Imperfectionists” four and half stars.
For more of my book reviews, visit bookchickdi.blogspot.com. Follow me on Twitter at @bookchickdi.
Diane La Rue is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Her lifelong goal is to read one book per week; she submits reviews monthly for The Citizen. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org