Rachman's novel about the history and inner workings of an English-language international newspaper based in Rome (with correspondents in Paris and Cairo) is structured wonderfully. Rachman reveals each character and advances the plot by devoting a chapter per character, titling each segment with catching headlines.
In an email to the newspaper, Rachman says "I hoped to produce a collage effect with it, to depict the entirety of the enterprise through its parts." He achieves this goal, because the details of the collage-like structure form a beautiful picture.
Apart from his promising career in literature, Rachman, a U of T graduate, has worked extensively for newspapers across the world, and was at one point stationed in Rome. It is evident throughout the novel that the author truly writes what he knows, and writes it well. Rachman says of the novel's setting, "It was a place where I'd worked and lived for four years, a place I loved, and that I could describe intimately. Also, I'd worked at the International Herald Tribune in Paris -- had I set the novel there, people would have assumed it was a portrait of the Trib, which it isn't."
True to life or not, Rachman's portrayal of Rome and of the life behind the scenes of a newspaper are authentic. No matter the personal strife faced by each of the newspaper's employees, their city is positively portrayed, always there outside the doors of the scraggly grey building where the newspaper's faded offices are located.
Apart from the intimacy of the segmented structure and description of Rome, Rachman intersperses his chapter with a sort of historical reference of the 50 year old newspaper, quick glimpses into the mysterious life of Cyrus Ott, the sugar refinery magnate who decided to found a newspaper, for reasons that do not become clear until much later.
The mystery assigned to the life of the first Ott does not always apply to the other characters of the novel. The reader comes to know, love, and sometimes pity characters like Arthur Gopal, the underachieving obituary writer who, faced with tragedy, rises to the top of the paper food chain. Or Katherine Solson, the ambitious, career-driven top editor hardened by choosing her career over love. Cyrus Ott’s story maintains its mystery the longest, mostly owing to the fact that it is dispersed between chapters packed with intimate details about the other characters.
The Imperfectionists does not disappoint. Just as you are beginning to feel sad that one character's story is over, another rich, interesting, and sometimes tragic story unfolds. It is really wonderful to see such in-depth character development married with a strong writing style. As the novel comes to a close, many questions remain unanswered, yet perhaps this is what makes the novel so captivating. It is like the novel that got away, the one you never really forget. If this is just the first effort from Tom Rachmann, this editor cannot wait for more.