Monday, February 10, 2014


by Rachel Joyce
 Random House   2014
385 pages     Fiction

I began Perfect by Rachel Joyce with a great deal of anticipation. I read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Joyce this spring and I loved it because it fit me exactly where I was at that moment in time. Somehow I got bogged down in Perfect early on, and it took me much longer to read than I had anticipated. I am glad that I stuck with it because once I figured out where the book was headed, I found great meaning in the story line.

The two themes that run through Perfect are time and perfection. The Globe and Mail describes the three conceptions of time that are important to understand as you undertake to read Perfect. They are: "the subjective present, which cannot be contained and therefore may not actually exist; the past, which has already happened, so it ceases to be; and the future, which hovers away at a distance, never actualizing into being." This theme is important to the story because the plot hinges on two seconds of time that apparently were added to the clocks in 1972 to make up for an anomaly in the rotation of the earth. Byron the young protagonist in the story is totally freaked out by the thought of those two seconds, and he blames all the subsequent misfortune in his family's life on that incident.

The second theme is the concept of perfection. Byron is a close observer of life, and particularly his mother, who he believes to be perfect. He adores his mother, as does his school friend James. The theme of perfection is presented early in the book but we soon find that Joyce means not to emphasize the concept of perfection but, alas, the loss of perfection and its close relative--control. Byron and James soon find that they cannot control the circumstances that set their worlds spinning and their perception of perfection soon becomes lost in a morass of circumstances and tragedy.

There is a secondary plot line, occurring in the present, in which a middle-aged man named Jim struggles to find his sanity. He has been in and out of a mental hospital most of his adult life. He tries to find order for his meager life through a series of obsessive compulsive behaviors. He is able to hold a menial job during the day, but his nights are spent obsessively taking care of his mobile home. He begins to recover when he meets a woman named Eileen, who befriends him, nurtures him, and helps him come to a better sense of himself. 

The connection of the two plots is quite shockingly revealed. It wasn't what I had expected at all, because while I knew there must be some connection between plot lines, I had it all figured out wrong. This is truly the beautiful part of the novel because now the themes of redemption and forgiveness enter in and it ends in a lovely glow. I was aided in my search for the origin of the meaning of Perfect by a letter that Rachel Joyce wrote to her readers about how she conceived of this novel. You can find her letter here

As in The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry,
Joyce's writing just escapes being cute or trite. It has twinges of the profound with an interesting set of characters and a plot that we haven't read before. To Joyce, perfection cannot ever be achieved and time is but an illusion. The Washington Post says that the slow tendencies of the book are redeemed by "moments of loveliness and insight" and the book has a "gentle ring of truth" to it.

Rachel Joyce's website:

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