Imperfect Reader

In her debut novel, Perfect Reader, Maggie Pouncey does a fine job with a protagonist who irritates within a plot that invites.  Twenty-something Flora Dempsey is so thoroughly dislikeable I had to keep reading to find out what she’d do next, all the while hopeful she might at least let go of her snobbery but Pouncey knows how to take readers to their limits and does not disappoint.

Flora as snob fits in well with the granola, privileged college community of Darwin to which she returns after the death of her father, Lewis Dempsey. A former president of Darwin College, Lewis Dempsey was a literary critic of some repute and devotee of Hardy, but  Lewis’ pure and constant love of language as illustrated in Reader as Understander–where the perfect reader puts aside life experience to experience only the words on the page–is the work that defines his professional life.

In retirement, Lewis turns to poetry, providing his perfect reader, Flora, a handwritten manuscript of  his poems, which she decides  not to read. When Lewis dies, Flora inherits a bit of wealth, including the house in Darwin, and she is named Literary Executor, forcing her to confront the poems along with her father’s late in life lover. And so, the story begins.

Author Pouncey is never cliché or sentimental but relies on wit and the subtlety it requires. My  favorite minor character is Joan Dempsey, ex-wife of Lewis and mother of Flora. All that Lewis is, Joan Dempsey is not as Pouncey draws us into a Thanksgiving dinner conversation between mother and daughter:

Joan “…was incensed about `Bible thumpers’ sprouting up all over the country in the guise of politicians, `like a plague of idiots’….

“`Every day there’s some new denialist denying the existence of some atrocity—there never was a Holocaust…there’s no such thing as global warming….If it doesn’t work for your agenda, say it never happened…how do you take that next step of actually believing the whopper—denying history, denying science?’”

In response, Joan Dempsey takes to writing a blog, The Responsible Anarchist, that “…attracts a healthy group of readers, some of them, admittedly, insane—who else was Googling the word anarchist?” (pp. 107-08). I read for these moments and to mark Flora’s progress, of course,  but always hopeful for Joan’s return.

My only complaint with the novel are infrequent, hazy references to characters I don’t remember ever meeting. Perhaps it’s just a characteristic of my older mind but I still require firm footing for any character that has a name and therefore a raison d’être.

A perfect reader I am not for what speaks to me in this novel– more than I care to admit–is Pouncey’s portrayal of the “Pompous Circumstance” of the academic world I adored. As this novel so beautifully illustrates, the world of Darwin is and always has been attainable by and for the very few. Making the grade involves social status as much as being awarded the diploma, something I’d forgotten, until I looked for the luster, long dulled, and now, a way I will never be.

Perfect Reader reminded me of much I once believed important, and it was refreshing to remember, imperfect reader that I am. As for author Maggie Pouncey, she tells a truth as perfectly as she knows how, which is all any reader ever asks.
Quoted material from Perfect Reader, a novel, by Maggie Pouncey, New York: Pantheon Books, 2010. 

Rhythm of ROW80 Sunday Scheduling:

The 30-minute writing stretches have improved the overall quality of the “words I keep.” The exercise provides a way to think through material for blog posts as well as novel scenes.

Last week I started writing out the concept of my already drafted novel, using Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering and Kristen Lamb’s concept critique.  On Saturday, I submitted an overview of the novel to my concept critique group and am still making scene notes. Plan to finish scenes and plots points this week. This is the first substantial progress I’ve made with my novel in the last four years.

Doing the Tao with Dyer: being, not doing

Nepo morning meditation continues



15 thoughts on “Imperfect Reader

  1. Well done on the progress.
    I always find short exercises so helpful. If I am really struggling, I try 50 words. It doesn’t always work but has helped on many occasions.

    Hope the rest of the week goes OK and see you Sunday. xx


  2. It takes a great amount of courage to allow your writing to be critiqued. I am wishing that I was part of a writing critique group though scary as it is to think of actually doing it.

    I love visiting your blog but I do have one gripe and I am not sure if it is a peculiarity to WordPress. It is disconcerting for me to get to the bottom of the post and then have to go looking for the comment section and realize I have to go all the way back up to the top to click comment. You do tend to receive a lot of comments so it makes me wonder how many more would you receive if it was easy to find?

    Otherwise it is a pleasure to read your check ins.



    1. Critique groups can be dangerous or one of the most wonderful tools available to a writer; my experience has been they fall into one or the other category. That said, my current group is just superb in its diversity and its commitment. We are trying what Kristen Lamb refers to as concept critique, a different approach for all of us. For me, it took a long time to be really ready for a group.
      As for comments, it’s probably my blog theme, which is a free one. At some point, I’ll change it, although no time soon to be truthful. I’m a very slow “techie.” Truly, I appreciate your perseverance but frankly, your comment has me looking. Thanks for stopping by, Morgan.



        1. Oh, Morgan, no offense taken! I just avoid “techie” stuff as long as possible. There are issues with this theme but I like the openness of it; yet, more and more, it does not accommodate what I wish to do. Truly, I appreciate the feedback. I, too, love our back and forth,


          1. It is the flat screen of the computer that sometimes misconstrues, or misses, the emotion behind statements. I too hate the techie stuff but have been forced to do it. I wish someone in my house liked doing it so I could pass it off on them but alas that isn’t the case. 😀



  3. Your intriguing review made me add Perfect Reader to my to-read list on . It would be interesting to compare Darwin College to the academia I knew back in Moscow. Thanks to my father who is a university professor, I got quite a bit of exposure to the community, although I wouldn’t call it an ivory tower.


  4. I quite enjoyed acedemia when I was there but never miss its rarified airs – lookes like the writing stints suit you – keep smiling and best of luck for coming week


    1. Hi, Alberta!
      I enjoyed my years in academe but as with most who have commented, there are some trappings no one seems to miss. As for the 30-minute writing sessions, they have helped to create blog content, in particular, and I’m getting to the point where I can use these sessions for the already-written first draft of my novel. As a lifelong, write-by-the-seat-of-my-pants writer, I am learning the merit of structure first, although a “pantser” I will always be.
      Thanks for stopping by; hope to see you here, again.


  5. I’m actually very glad I got out of academia when I did. I met a number of wonderful people during my university years, but also many inflated egos and petty minds. For myself, though, it gave me the mental freedom to finally devote more time to my writing.

    Keep up the good work with the 30 minute writing sprints and have a great week!


    1. Hi, Ruth!
      Always nice to see you here! Like you, I credit academe with finally getting me to my own writing; as mentioned more than once in these comments, the egos are amazing, if not palatable, and the pettiness…well, that could be another post but I hope not. Perfect Reader was just a fun read, making me realize that world holds no attraction for me, finally.
      Again, thanks for stopping by.


  6. Academia is a world of small outrages and large egos and values that are legal currency only in the tiny stronghold of a university–but within that community they are absolute.

    I would never be welcome there but have family members who have jumped the hoops of tenure and done well. Strange, strange way to live–but the perks are good. I wouldn’t mind a sabbatical.


    1. A close friend of mine left academe because a tenure and promotion committee denied his sabbatical–he’d been a member of the faculty for over twenty years. It is a strange world, as you say, and what Perfect Readergave me was a fun way to revisit with no commitment. As always, I so appreciate your thoughtful comments.


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