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Perfect: A Novel Hardcover – January 14, 2014
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Q&A with Rachel Joyce
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry began as a radio play and then developed into the novel it is today after many years of writing and revising. But Perfect was written within a shorter space of time. How did your process differ in writing the two novels?
The truth is, I have been thinking about Perfect for even longer than The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. The idea about the cost of perfection and an accident that changes everything, as well as the central characters, have all been loitering in my head for many years. I could always see Byron and Diana and I knew I needed to find out more about who they were and what happened to them. Sometimes I have even tried fitting them into other stories, but it never felt right because this is where they belong.
As with most things, the story has grown over time. New characters have stepped in. Things I couldn’t understand have become clearer. I have played with different versions until I found this one. It was only as I began to write it this time around, for instance, that it dawned on me that it wasn’t a contemporary story and neither was it an urban one. It was only this time, too, that I thought about splitting the story between two tenses and two periods in time.
Otherwise, the writing process was very similar with both books. I sat here every day and I wrote and rewrote and rewrote.
How much of the novel is based on real places and people?
The moor setting is fictitious. But – as with Harold Fry’s story – I stepped out of our house and drew on what I saw. I am lucky enough to live on the brow of a valley. I write about the things I see when I look out of my writing shed or walk through the fields. It’s the same with characters. I write about people I glimpse and then I imagine the rest. I think I tend to find people in my head that I want to explore and maybe all of them have an element or two of me in them. I don’t know. In researching the character of Jim, for instance, I spoke to a number of people about OCD and whilst it is not a condition I’ve experienced, it reminded me of other things I’ve felt that had similar beginnings or resonances. For me, writing is about finding the links between myself and the outside world. It’s a way of better understanding.
You have written that Harold Fry was inspired in part by your father. Was there someone or something specific that compelled you to write Perfect?
It is difficult for me to know why I choose to write certain stories. Often I don’t understand until many years later. But I do remember vividly when the first nugget of this story came to me. It was just over twelve years ago, after the birth of my third child, and I was driving my oldest daughter to school. My second daughter was telling me she was hungry, the baby was crying, and on the passenger seat beside me was the plate of cakes I had got up at dawn to make for the very competitive children’s bake stall. I was driving slowly. Traffic was heavy. I had barely slept for days. And then I had one of those moments when you lift out of yourself, when you see your life from a new perspective, and it occurred to me that if I made a mistake, if someone ran into the road, if anything unexpected happened, I did not have the energy, the space, the wherewithal, the presence of mind even, to deal with it. I was stretched as far as I could go. I began writing the story as soon as I got home.
“Haunting . . . compelling.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune
“[Joyce] triumphantly returns with Perfect. . . . As Joyce probes the souls of Diana, Byron and Jim, she reveals—slowly and deliberately, as if peeling back a delicate onion skin—the connection between the two stories, creating a poignant, searching tale.”—O: The Oprah Magazine
“Perfect touches on class, mental illness, and the ways a psyche is formed or broken. It has the tenor of a horror film, and yet at the end, in some kind of contortionist trick, the narrative unfolds into an unexpected burst of redemption. [Verdict:] Buy It.”—New York
“Joyce’s dark, quiet follow-up to her successful debut, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, could easily become a book club favorite. . . . Perfect is the kind of book that blossoms under thoughtful examination, its slow tendencies redeemed by moments of loveliness and insight. However sad, Joyce’s messages—about the limitations of time and control, the failures of adults and the fears of children, and our responsibility for our own imprisonment and freedom—have a gentle ring of truth to them.”—The Washington Post
“There is a poignancy to Joyce’s narrative that makes for her most memorable writing.”—NPR’s All Things Considered
“Beautifully written . . . Joyce showed an incredible sensitivity and understanding when she wrote about the impact of mental illness in Harold Fry, and that talent shines even brighter now that she’s devoting more space to the subject. . . . Joyce is great at building tension, with her prose managing to give huge weight to a menacing comment or a small mistake.”—The A.V. Club
“Perfect is a poignant and powerful book, rich with empathy and charged with beautiful, atmospheric writing.”—Tana French, author of In the Woods and Broken Harbor
“[Rachel] Joyce, showing the same talent for adroit plot development seen in the bestselling The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, brings both narrative strands together in a shocking, redemptive denouement.”—Publishers Weekly
“[Perfect’s] unputdownable factor . . . lies in its exploration of so many multilayered emotions. There is the unbreakable bond between mother and son, the fear of not belonging . . . and how love can offer redemption.”—London Evening Standard
Top Customer Reviews
Upon witnessing a terrible lapse of time and in awareness, Byron Hemmings is caught in between the worlds of childhood and adulthood, as he is reluctantly forced to make a choice: reveal this secret about his precious, faultless mother, Diana, or keep quiet in his own mind forever. When his genius friend, James, excitedly concocts a plan to fix this intangible error, Operation Perfect is born; as the judgment of two adolescent boys goes, the procedure will either go according to plan, just as imagined in their hands... or it will end it utter disaster.
Byron's balmy, yet increasingly paranoiac summer days, are interspersed with Jim's portion of the story, set in a bitter present-day winter. Jim is a middle-aged obsessive-compulsive, who lives in a van, who works as a busboy, and whose condition worsens when reminiscing about his past and his haunting experience at Besley Hill, the sanitarium he was shoved into as a teenager.
The two seemingly unrelated narratives catch up to each other in a collision of time; they swerve together and explode into one another in a fateful, alarming twist that will leave readers breathless. For the majority of the novel, however, the prose is—however flowery and fanciful—languidly, almost sluggishly, set. I found Joyce's writing enjoyable, but very thick and puzzling, especially in the first half. Almost Ian McEwan-esque, her prose isn't particularly difficult to get through, but at times it was just thoroughly boring, which is why it took me a while to finish.
In characterization, in plot, and in tone, however, Perfect is a masterpiece. Each of the characters, even the ones that only make small appearances, are so vivid and intimately portrayed. Readers will cherish the characters they are meant to like, and loathe the ones they are meant to dislike. The eerily calm but inherently alarming mood sets up a domestically freakish story; while plain and placid in technique and style, the undertones of Perfect not only illuminate upon values of mistakes, redemption, and the human condition, but also bewilder, perplex. This is definitely a book that makes you think hard.
Pros: Substantial, exquisite writing // Contains one of the most elegantly executed, shocking plot twists ever // Deeply meaningful // The way Byron's mind runs in fascinating // All the characters are fabulously depicted; I fell in love with the protagonists and hated the antagonists deeply
Cons: Very confusing at first // Moves extremely slowly, even in the end // I liked the prose but it was a little sludgy
Verdict: The injustices of adulthood and the restrictive bindings of upperclass society are brought to light in Rachel Joyce's newest British novel. Byron Hemmings's brilliantly fleshed, intimately portrayed character will make you think twice about the role of children, the responsibility of—or vindication from—accidents, and the faults of trust—the faults of humanity. One young boy's naïveté and misplaced guilt, as well as his mother's faultless crime, ignite this slow deterioration of an outwardly immaculate, perfect household. With grand allusions to the philosophy of time and the significance of deep thinking, Perfect questions the disastrous consequences of our every choice.
Rating: 8 out of 10 hearts (4 stars): An engaging read that will be worth your while; highly recommended.
Source: Complimentary copy provided by publisher via tour publicist in exchange for an honest and unbiased review (thank you, Random House and TLC!).
The story is set in two different time zones; the spring and summer of 1972 and the present, with the some of the characters featuring in both zones. As the story unfolds, it eventually becomes obvious that there will be some merging of the two strands. This is a device that has not always satisfied me in the past, but I felt that Rachel Joyce handled this aspect of her storytelling effortlessly. By using the past tense for the 1972 episodes and the present tense for the more up to date part of the novel, there was never a problem with locating oneself within the story.
There are many layers to "Perfect" and also a range of interesting characters. Byron Hemmings and James Lowe are boys in 1972, interested in the world around them and full of ideas and plans. They are particularly interested in the thought that two seconds will be taken away from time during the year and it is Byron's amazement at seeing the second hand of his watch moving backwards that leads to an event which will ultimately change his life and the lives of those around him.
In my opinion, one of the most endearing characters from the 1972 strand is Byron's mother, Diana. She is trapped in what appears to be a loveless marriage, isolated in the country with her two children, Byron and his little sister, Lucy. She does not really fit in with the other mothers, but is not afraid to voice her opinion. Without a doubt, she is a good mother, who loves her children deeply.
In the other strand, we come across Jim, a man with mental health problems, who works in a local supermarket. His efforts to survive safely involve many painstaking rituals. His life is fraught with difficulties, but he gradually comes to realise that there are people who care for him.
I experienced a range of emotions while reading "Perfect": sadness, amusement, anger, hope. For me, this is the perfect novel - one which engaged me, made me think and it is beautifully written.
In accordance with FTC guidelines, please note that I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Sorry, it simply was not good.