PERFECT READER by Maggie Pouncey

Book Quote:

“The poems, my father’s poems,” Flora said. She wanted to make Cynthia see her way of looking. “They’re so personal. If there was a reading, or some other public forum, they could make everyone close to him feel…exposed. I don’t know, maybe it would be different or easier if they were paintings. Something other than poems.”

Book Review:

Review by Kirstin Merrihew (JUN 16, 2010)

Any literary aspirant who is thinking of naming a child of their own as a literary executor might think twice after seeing how one daughter plans to treat her father’s legacy in Perfect Reader: A Novel. Flora Dempsey, who is in her ripe twenties, is more interested in using her deceased father’s poems as proof of his love for her and as a possessive and preemptory weapon against the woman, Cynthia Reynolds, who became his companion shortly before he died. Flora thinks of all kinds of reasons why others should not have access to the poems and why publication might never be permitted. In a sense, her father, Lewis Dempsey, former college president and renown literary critic, has unwittingly given her a means to strike back at him, if only posthumously, for his having strayed away from her and her mother and for his not being able to be everything Flora wanted. She loved (and still loves) him, and longed (and still longs) to be special to him, but she also continues to feel a sad breach between them that she resents.

Flora returns to Darwin and the old farmhouse where her father lived after he vacated the president’s official residence. She wants to go through his papers, get reacquainted with the dog, Larks, and generally immerse herself in a solitary mourning of not just her father, but also a long lost friendship, a family that disintegrated, and her own uncertainties about the footholds of adulthood.

Maggie Pouncey imbues her debut novel with lively turns of phrase, perceptive observations about people and society, and a natural tendency to analyze living spaces (Flora quit a job as a magazine writer specializing in room design). The author candidly admits in the Q&A at the end of the volume that “I guess I’m more interested in characters than I am in plot, or, to put it another way, I’ve tried to allow story to emerge from putting the right people in a room together.” Pouncey succeeds in some good combinations of characters engaging each other. For instance, Lewis’ lady friend, Cynthia, and Flora have several tension-building scenes.

Then there is Flora’s mother, Joan, who writes a blog called “The Responsible Anarchist,” and who is always full of things to say. It is she who tells her daughter that she’s an “Internet sensation” when word leaks that Lewis Dempsey’ penned poems might never be read by the public. The discussion eventually leads Joan to chide Flora…and by implication, herself: “You really are an ungrateful little child…Who raised you?” Even though this mother/daughter chat remains generally good-natured, Flora is a character who can rightfully be called ungrateful, selfish, etc. As with many modern characters, she is turned in on herself.

While there are plenty of Flora’s introspective ponderings, what we don’t have is much about Flora’s reading of her father’s poems. There are a few lines given as a sample, and there is some discussion of the poems. For example, ” ‘But they were also richer than I expected them to be,’ Flora went on, the sudden lift, the pleasure in talking about him. ‘His writing, it’s musical — or more specifically, it strikes me as choral, with many voices singing different parts.’ ”

But for the most part, Pouncey is interested in investigating psychology, not fictional literary pieces. This young woman who wants to be her father’s “perfect reader” discovers that even in the matter of these poems she was not uppermost in her father’s thoughts. And she decides, apparently with some reason, that since these are mainly love poems to someone not her mother, perhaps she should not be reading them at all. Flora’s hopes crumble concerning rehabilitating her father as the image she wants to see, and she must try to readjust and finally emerge from childhood’s shadows into a more mature adulthood of her own.

Perfect Reader is a thoughtful person’s novel. It seeks to unfold defining events in a young woman’s life. It gives a taste of the small college town and the petty (or not so petty) grievances that can fester in academia. It reminds us that confidences are rarely kept. It explores how friendships can founder, some forever, some saved, but perhaps in a patched-up way. This is a book to read for the assured and smart language and for the cagey, wary character interactions. The plot’s not the thing, but what is a matter of suspense throughout is what ultimately Flora will decide to do about Lewis’ poems. “The fate of the manuscript is uncertain,” and the question is whether Flora can grow up enough to honor her late father rather than indulge herself.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 35 readers
PUBLISHER: Pantheon (June 15, 2010)
REVIEWER: Kirstin Merrihew
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Maggie Pouncey
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Another father leaves behind some written words:

The Sorrows of An American by Siri Hustvedt

And a novel written by her father:

Rules for Old Men Waiting by Peter Pouncey


June 16, 2010 В· Judi Clark В· No Comments
Tags:  В· Posted in: Character Driven, Contemporary, Literary, NE & New York, Reading Guide

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