Book Review: Perfect (2014)



by Alan F. Zundel

Author Rachel Joyce was brave to title her second novel “Perfect,” as a reviewer could point out various ways the novel is not perfect. Could, that is, if not for the fact that it is perfect.

Her writing is so exquisite I am envious. I find no flaws in this book. I loved it.

The title refers to a central character in the novel, the mother of an eleven-year old boy whose eccentric best friend gives the code name “perfect” to the boys’ project of helping her with a problem she at first does not even know she has.

The mother’s problem is that while driving her children to school one day she hits a little girl on a bicycle and drives off without realizing it. Her son, who has seen the accident, senses it is the harbinger of worse to come. He turns to his friend for advice and the two boys find themselves entering a world of adult problems they are unprepared to deal with.

Chapters alternate between that story, set in the English countryside in 1972, and a contemporary story of a lonely middle-aged man who was released from a mental institution and is now working a menial job in a café. The two stories are clearly headed toward a convergence, the linkage becoming tighter as the novel progresses, but still the ending caught me by surprise. It was—well, perfect.

The plot moves steadily but in no rush. You will not be in a hurry either as you read. Joyce’s use of language is so precise and evocative, often using descriptions of the countryside to enhance the mood of scenes, that you will want to linger and enjoy the journey.

“Byron surveyed the field of moving grass, threaded with pink campion, vetch, spears of lady’s bedstraw, scabious, and the deeply cut purple petals of meadow cranesbill. Beneath the blue of the sky, the pond was a deep green and thick with velvety strings of duckweed. A small pink petal was tucked into his mother’s hair, and a picture came to his mind of her covered in meadow flowers.”

“Outside, the hood of sky was darker. The rain shot straight down, hard as spikes. It smashed against the leaves. It flattened the grass. It pelted the house as if it meant harm, and poured from the gutters onto the terrace. The noise was deafening.”

That, I believe, is part of the underlying theme of the novel: enjoy life and nature as it unfolds, and do not be in too much of a hurry to rush things along. Endings come soon enough, and often much too soon. The codename “perfect” arises from the best friend’s not-so-secret infatuation with the mother, but it also indicates the sad but beautiful perfection of life.

Joyce’s empathy for her characters is contagious. There are no villains in the story, just human beings struggling with the circumstances of their lives. I cared about them. I felt I knew them. The lonely young mother trapped in a dissatisfying life. The lovingly concerned young son. His bright school chum, fascinated with random facts and problem-solving. The sad and confused man living in a trailer, obsessed with compulsive rituals.

At the climax near the end of the novel, I wept repeatedly. The story has some tragedy in it, yes, but sadness is not what made me cry. I cried over acts of kindness, the tenderness between two friends, the appreciation of a particular human being by those around him, and the redemptive possibilities in life.

Far from being a downer, the book was a joy to read and left me thankful for the healing powers of love and nature. When I finished I immediately wanted to read it again.

I highly recommend this one.

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