Rachel Joyce’s Perfect: A Good Book That Doesn’t Quite Live Up To Its Title

Thumbnail of Perfect by Rachel JoyceHaving enjoyed The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, I looked forward to reading Rachel Joyce’s second novel, Perfect. I downloaded the e-book version in time for a family trip in mid-April and immediately read the first 20% of it, which, unfortunately, hardly kept my attention. I ended up putting the novel away until yesterday, when I finally finished the remaining 80%. Although the novel didn’t sit well with me, I’m glad I finished it. It was worth reading.

The novel involves two interspersed narratives: (1) the story of 11 year-old Byron during the summer of 1972, when two extra seconds were added to Universal Coordinated Time; and (2) the present-day story of Jim, a man who has been spent much of his adult life in Besley Hill, a psychiatric institution. I preferred Jim’s story to Byron’s. The portions about Jim felt cohesive and poignant, while the portions about Byron felt disorganized and improbable.

Initially, the two narratives seem entirely separate, but, in true Joyce fashion, Perfect eventually reveals the connection between Byron and Jim with a twist. I could see this twist coming from 600 miles away–maybe because I was familiar with what Joyce did in Harold Fry–and I spent much of the book just hoping she wouldn’t go through with it. It felt more like an unnecessary trick than a meaningful revelation.

I also had difficulty discerning the “lesson” at the heart of this tale, and I was annoyed that, when I could find it, it amounted to little more than a trite expression like what’s in a name, nothing’s perfect, forgiveness sets you free, or ignorance is bliss. On that last phrase, much of the novel is designed to force readers to wonder, just as the characters do, If only Byron hadn’t known about the two seconds, If only Byron’s mother, Diana, hadn’t known about the car accident — but what transpired from this knowledge was hard for me to believe.

Another issue I had with the novel involved a few loose ends, which I won’t describe in detail for fear of revealing too much about the plot in this review. All I will say here is that the plot lines around Diana, her friend Beverley, and Beverley’s daughter left me with more questions than answers.

Although certain aspects of the novel didn’t work well for me, there were other parts that did. In particular, Joyce successfully developed characters who tugged at my heartstrings. My heart ached for Bryon, Diana, and most of all, for Jim, whose fragile mental state and need for control left him performing rituals, including stepping in and out of his van 21 times. Descriptions of his loneliness are painful to read:

He has had no real friends since he was at school. He has never been with a woman. Since the closure of Besley Hill, he has wished for both, for friends, for love– for knowing and being known– but if you are stepping in and out of doors, and greeting inanimate objects, as well as securing openings with duct tape, there isn’t much leftover time.

I sincerely hoped Jim would find the friendships he deserved. Caring for him as much as I did made me especially appreciate the cautious optimism of Joyce’s ending.

All in all, it’s a good book, but far from a “perfect” one. It is just as quirky as Harold Fry, but less charming and more perplexing. However, I wonder if this novel didn’t live up to my expectations simply because my expectations were too high. Harold Fry is a difficult book to follow.*

Thoughts on Rachel Joyce’s Perfect: A Novel from Other Book Bloggers:

  • Monika at A Lovely Bookshelf on the Wall (12/18/13): “Joyce’s writing drew me in; it felt good to read her words. The story flowed naturally and I had trouble putting the book down. I can’t wait to read more of her work.”
  • Leah from Books Speak Volumes (12/23/13): “Although I had a few quibbles with Perfect, I really enjoyed it for the most part. The characters are well written, the writing is brimming with empathy, and I loved the alternating narratives.”
  • Ciska at Ciska’s Book Chest (1/17/14): “I loved the end, the way things developed and both Byron’s and Jim’s lives touched. Though I kept asking myself what their lives had to do with one another I could have never guessed the outcome.”

*See Harold Fry’s Moving, If a Bit Pedantic, Pilgrimage.

13 thoughts on “Rachel Joyce’s Perfect: A Good Book That Doesn’t Quite Live Up To Its Title

  1. I have not read anything by this author before, but she comes highly recommended. I am sorry this one wasn’t better for you. I often shy away from “second” books after reading one by an author I absolutely love for the very fact I worry it won’t live up to my expectations. I’ve been met with mixed results when I do.

    I am still on the fence about Perfect. Maybe a better book to read is her Harold Fry. Although, maybe I should start with the weaker novel first . . .

  2. Books like this can be such a bummer. I read a book like this recently (“The Keep” by Jennifer Egan). It was disheartening, but still enjoyable in some weird way. I suppose there is no such thing as a wasted book, I just wish some did a better job of wrapping things up and making the story cohesive.

    1. Yeah, no book is a complete waste of time (at least I can learn something from the ones I don’t like!), but it’s just so disappointing when one doesn’t live up to expectations. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. I think the thing that impressed me most about this one was that the tone was completely different than Harold Fry. It wasn’t a perfect book but I am intrigued by a writer who can write two very different stories.

    1. True! Rachel Joyce is a very impressive writer. The two novels are quite different from each other, though there are a few similarities (such as having a twist).

    1. It might! I highly recommend Rachel Joyce’s novels. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is wonderful, and Perfect isn’t bad. I know that isn’t a ringing endorsement of her second novel, but I think I’m just being too hard on it because it didn’t meet my expectations (which were probably too high).

  4. By your review and description, the book seems interesting enough to me. I am not familiar with the authors previous work which might make the difference if it held my interest unlike how you felt at first. You do such a good review on books that I can believe you get searched a lot for them.

    1. Hi Donna! Rachel Joyce’s “Perfect” is definitely an interesting book. It just didn’t quite meet my expectations. I hope my review wouldn’t dissuade others from reading it. Thanks for the kind words about my reviews. The ones that seem to get the most traffic are for classics (and I suspect that most of the people clicking on those posts are writing final papers or studying for English exams!).

  5. Ssssssssssssss

    This novel seems good (nice balanced review). I wonder how your review would be different had you not read The Unlikely Pilgrimage.

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