Book Review: Perfect by Rachel Joyce
On a foggy spring morning in 1972, twelve-year-old Byron Hemming and his mother are driving to school in the English countryside. On the way, in a life-changing two seconds, an accident occurs. Or does it? Byron is sure it happened, but his mother, sitting right next to him in the car, has no reaction to it. Over the course of the days and weeks that follow, Byron embarks on a journey to discover what really happened-or didn’t-that fateful morning when everything changed. It is a journey that will take him — a loveable and cloistered twelve-year-old boy with a loveable and cloistered twelve-year-old boy’s perspective on life — into the murkier, more difficult realities of the adult world, where adults lie, fathers and mothers fight without words, and even unwilling boys must become men. By the end, Byron will finally reconcile the dueling realities of that summer, a testament to the perseverance of the human spirit and the power of compassion.
Having read the author’s previous novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, I expected to enjoy Perfect. Sadly, this wasn’t the case.
Perfect is written in the third-person, with alternating chapters focusing on Byron during that fateful summer of 1972 and a middle-aged adult named Jim struggling through his present-day menial job and serious OCD and emotional problems. As the story unfolds, Byron watches his mother disintegrate as her perfect facade begins to show cracks, and we also see Jim start to find a connection to an unusual woman who makes a dramatic entrance into his life.
In Byron’s part of the story, Byron and his best friend become fixated on a news story about the world clock being adjusted by two seconds in order to realign with the earth’s rotation. These two seconds take on a major significance for the boys, so that when the accident occurs, Byron is convinced that it’s because of the two extra seconds. It just doesn’t work. I was never convinced that these boys (or any boys) would fixate on this issue to the degree that they do, and it’s an odd element that adds nothing to the story.
Both Byron and the adult Jim are less than reliable observers, and so in both parts of the narrative, we view the action from very shaky ground. Unfortunately, this also has the effect of distancing the reader from the story. I always felt that I was getting a report on events, rather than witnessing them myself, and thus felt no immediacy or sense of connection as Byron’s family life spirals out of control.
Byron’s mother Diana is the central figure in the confusing and tragic events of the summer of 1972, but she remains an enigma. We know that she had a somewhat disreputable past; we see that her husband controls her every move; we learn that she has reinvented herself since being married and strives to always be a perfect wife and mother. Once Diana’s perfection is marred by the accident that may or may not have occurred, she slowly slips away from herself and her family, as without that illusion, she is left with nothing.
The portrait of Jim is interesting, as we learn bit by bit what happened to leave him in such a state, unable to function without his all-consuming rituals, constantly afraid of disaster. However,the love story that leads him to redemption is not credible in the least. How many books have we read featuring a flamboyantly eccentric, loud woman who comes into a meeker character’s life and shows him that love is possible? I don’t know about you, but I feel like I’ve seen this story a hundred times before. It’s not fresh, and it doesn’t work in this novel.
As in The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, the big reveal at the end of the book is meant to be a shocking twist. It is not. By mid-way through the book, it was plain to me what was really going on, and I didn’t feel that there was any true pay-off in what is intended to be a big, emotionally charged scene.
Not to say, however, that Perfect lacks interesting or redeeming qualities. There’s a twisted relationship that develops in the aftermath of the accident, and it is fascinating to see how Diana’s doubts and guilt lead her to become the victim of an opportunistic stranger, with Byron’s attempts to help only exacerbating and hastening Diana’s downfall. The changing landscape of the moors and villages in Perfect serve to reflect the social dynamics of the time, and as the economy worsens over the decades, we see that reflected in the surrounding housing communities and countryside as well. The tension between the wealthy private school families and the lower-class townies comes into play in the main storyline, and adds an interesting dimension to the unfolding drama and the tragic events that occur.
Despite being a quick read, Perfect simply doesn’t satisfy. The quirky characters and cause-and-effect plot devices never feel real or believable, and as a result, I was unmoved by the confrontations and resolutions that should have been emotionally rich. Lacking any connection to the characters and just not buying some of the major events and their catalysts, I would have to consider Perfect a disappointment.
Author: Robin Joyce
Publisher: Random House
Publication date: January 14, 2014
Genre: Adult contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Random House via NetGalley