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.
Nepo morning meditation continues