Before sitting down to read Rachel Joyce’s second novel, Perfect, make sure you have a box of Kleenex within reach just in case. This story is much darker than The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, and taken in its entirety, Fry isn’t all that happy,either. But even in Perfect, there’s some light, some good things. The past and the present alternate, forward and backward in time, and we are finally able to piece the story together by the end. It is extremely hard to put down once you start, as my several late-night binge-read sessions will attest to. Rachel Joyce has said in interviews that she is most drawn to those on the outside looking in. Each character struggles with this in different ways.
The dust jacket provides an excellent plot outline, so I won’t reproduce it here. I was frustrated that some things were very confusing to interpret. Was it because the events of the early parts were seen through the eyes of an 11-year-old boy who doesn’t yet have full adult understanding? Or is to because life has so many gray areas? Perhaps readers also bring their own experiences into what’s happening with the characters. The author, as well as readers, have tremendous compassion and empathy for the people in the story. That gives the story its strength. After I finished, I read several reviews in major papers to see if I was right. Reviewers liked it and thought it would be a good discussion selection, but they all had different interpretations and saw different things.
I was most drawn to Jim’s story. He’s been in and out of mental hospitals since he was 16. A supermarket clerk, he struggles to make sense of the world and to fit in and be with other people. He lives in his van because there’s no place else to go. He likes being outside better anyway, and he tends his garden when not working. On top of his other challenges, he has severe OCD. The rituals are the way he copes–an attempt to put things right in his world.
People often struggle to obtain perfection, but what does that actually mean? What yardstick do you measure it by? Sometimes it’s too much of a strain to be perfect. How do you let go of perfection in healthy ways? In Perfect, there are no answers.