It’s currently -15 degrees in Chicago — and that’s at noon, with the sun shining. Yesterday I saw a Facebook post from Garrison Keillor’s bookstore in St. Paul, Minnesota, showing a digital thermometer reading -14 degrees, with the caption, “Dear Rest of the World, in Minnesota we call this ‘book weather’. Enjoy.” Thank you, Common Good Books, for giving voice to what I have always thought: the worse the weather, the better the day.
I love to hibernate. If I am reincarnated as an animal, I would like to be a bear. The only problem is that bears are not literate, and I like to spend my hibernation time reading. On New Year’s Day (which is always a wonderful day to stay home in pajamas), I finished reading Rachel Joyce’s Perfect. I adored this lovely novel, and have been thinking about it ever since. Joyce tells two stories, in alternating chapters: the story of Byron, a young boy whose innocent childhood comes to an end when something happens on an ordinary morning on the way to school, and the story of Jim, a middle-aged man whose life is crippled by obsessive-compulsive disorder. The reader may or may not anticipate the way in which these two lives end up intersecting ( I didn’t!), but that doesn’t matter — the beauty of this book is in the characters. Perfect is one of the rare character-driven novels in which the plot is well-paced and full of surprises.
As I’ve said before, I have no problem with unlikable characters in literature. The best fiction helps us understand human nature, and unlikable characters are necessary for that. Still, it’s a real pleasure to read about lovable characters. By “lovable” characters, I don’t mean “endearing”; I mean characters that the reader grows to understand and love. There are no perfect characters in this book. They all make grave mistakes that have unforeseen and unfortunate consequences, but they are trying to do what they think is right. Byron and his friend James develop “Operation Perfect” to protect Diana, Byron’s mother, after she is involved in a potentially dangerous situation. Diana is a kind, fragile. and sensitive woman, married to a domineering husband, who is easily manipulated. (She is reminiscent of another sad and lovely English woman, Princess Diana — am I reading too much into the fact that Rachel Joyce named her Diana?) She loves her children fiercely, but is ill-equipped to care for them — and Byron takes on the burdensome role of parent.
Whatever happened, he must never tell his mother what she had done. Of all the people to know, she was the most dangerous. He told himself this over and over while her fingers crept through his hair and the rain pattered on the leaves and the thunder grew tame.
Perfect is filled with ambiguity, which is part of what makes the book so haunting. Are some of the events imagined by the characters, or did they really happen? And does it matter if they actually occurred? Because, as Byron notes, “Within months, everything had changed, and the changes could never be put right. Nothing could atone for his mother’s mistake.” Jim knows that the obsessive rituals he is compelled to perform won’t prevent tragedy from striking, but his rational mind is overpowered by his need to compensate for what he sees as unpardonable sins: “How can he start again with Eileen? What about the rituals? . . . What she has no idea about is who he is, what he did in the past and all that he must continue to do to atone for that.” Did he really do anything unforgivable?
I’m looking forward to discussing this book in person and online — it raises many, many interesting questions about friendship, class, marriage, parents and children, guilt, truth . . . and perfection. As my first read of 2014, Perfect sets a high standard.