10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
The Imperfectionists: A Novel
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
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Tom Rachman blends comedy and tragedy in The Imperfectionists, a collection of linked short stories about the staff members and others attached to an unnamed English-language newspaper in Rome. His idiosyncratic daily is trying to stay afloat in the digital age. But it has no website because, an editor says, “The Internet is to news what car horns are to music.” Can such a journalistic throwback survive? Rachman withholds the answer until the last pages of a book that reads like a collection of smartly written parables about the human illusions that lie at the intersection of work and love.
Questions for Discussion:
1. The publisher of The Imperfectionists has billed the book as “a novel,” but it reads like a collection of linked short stories. Did the book work as a novel? Why or why not?
2. A character in The Imperfectionists expresses a theme of the book when she reflects that “living overseas changes the rules.” [Page 185] What did she mean? How has living abroad has changed the rules for some of the characters in the novel?
3. Another theme of the book is that human illusions persist in adulthood and that, to some extent, we need them. Rachman’s characters typically cling to a fantasy until jolted out of it (as happens to the corrections editor who believes that he and his old friend Jimmy are “gradations of the same man” until Jimmy visits and the editor realizes that they are “utterly different”). [Page 94] How well does Rachman develop this theme? Were you persuaded, for example, that the corrections editor would cling for so long to his fantasies about Jimmy’s writing talents? Or that the Paris correspondent could be so mistaken about his son?
4. How does living abroad feed the illusions of the characters in The Imperfectionists? Would its story have worked if Rachman had set the story in a city in the U.S.? Why?
5. The stop-and-go format of linked-story collections can work brilliantly, as it does in Winesburg, Ohio. It can also make it harder for an author to maintain a steady pace, because there’s a narrative break at the end of every story or chapter. (One critic said that “desultoriness … is only narrowly kept at bay” in The Impressionists.) How would you characterize the pace of the book?
6. One critic said that Rachman serves up “a procession of biscotti-cutter characters.” Do you agree or disagree?
7. Rachman combines comedy and tragedy, qualities that are often hard to unite in fiction. His story involves the death of child but also entertainingly hapless headlines such as “GLOBAL WARMING GOOD FOR ICE CREAMS” or “WORLD’S OLDEST LIAR DIES AT 126.” How well did Rachman bring comedy and tragedy together in his book? Which characters or events seemed the most amusing and the saddest?
8. Why do you think Rachman set his first story in Paris when most of the rest of The Impressionists takes place in Rome?
9. Christopher Buckley praised the endings of Rachman’s stories in his New York Times Book Review review of The Impressionists, some of which have what’s often called an “O. Henry twist.” Which endings did you find most memorable? Why did they work?
10. Several other linked short story collections have had a lot of attention recently, including the Pulitzer Prize-winner Olive Kitteridge. How does The Impressionists compare to any others you’ve read?
Your book group may also want to read:
And Then We Came to the End (Back Bay, 2008, paperback) by Joshua Ferris. D. J. Taylor wrote in a Guardian review that The Imperfectionists has a “faint yet persistent resemblance” to Ferris’s novel, “much of whose obliquity and ground-down communal spirit it shares.”
The Imperfectionists: A Novel. By Tom Rachman. Dial Press, 272 pp., $25. Published: April 2010. Editor: Susan Kamil.
A review of The Imperfectionists appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on July 20, 2010.
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Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. You can also follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda, where she writes about books and often comments on book clubs.
© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.