Perfect Reader

Surprises are unwelcome legacies.

In Maggie Pouncey’s Perfect Reader, Flora returns to the small college town of Darwin, a place with mixed childhood memories, after her father’s sudden death.  As the former president of Darwin College, Lewis Dempsey was a scholar and a well-known literary critic.  He left his papers and his unpublished poetry to Flora, as his literary executor.  As she tries to manage her feelings on her father’s death, and wonders how she can live up to his expectations – even after death – Flora discovers a surprise – Cynthia, her father’s lover, with a claim to his works.

As the story flips back and forth from Flora’s shaky childhood after her parents divorce,  to reconciling her relationship as an adult with her dead father, Cynthia’s character is suspect.  Is she trying to befriend Flora because she wants to know her better – or does she just want to get her hands on the rights to the unpublished manuscript?

“You want the Odes to Cynthia Reynolds to get the attention they deserve.  You want the world to finally meet the muse.”

Although Pouncey includes detailed scenes of academic rivalries and the family life that is deconstructing, this novel is not plot-driven; it’s about character development. Flora’s mother provides sad comic relief in her failed attempts to assert her will as the marriage flounders: changing to purple hair, stealing her husband’s license plates; Lewis, the dead father,  reappears in scenes from the past as the brilliant yet clumsy academic; Georgia, Flora’s childhood friend and rival, lurks in the background after a cruel accident; assorted housekeepers, townfolk, and academics make up the cast.

But Flora is the focus of this novel.  Now in her late twenties, she has left a job she didn’t like at a magazine, met and had steamy sex with Paul, her father’s attorney, but she seems stuck back in the small college town where she grew up – unable to decide how to continue her life.  Her father’s death has become a catharsis.

Pouncey includes so many pithy phrases, I had to stop bending back pages to mark them and start writing them down.  These are only a few:

“It was exciting when people misbehaved…

Where was the line exactly between loneliness and insanity?…

The dead left you alone; it was the living who filled you up with loneliness.”

“People think differently, but it doesn’t make them idiots.”

“…the way intelligent people fool themselves into thinking their transparency is opaque to others less savvy…”

Pouncey constantly refers to the poetry that Flora’s father left as his legacy, with only one excerpt from “Wizard” that directly relates to Flora – leaving the rest to the imagination of the reader.

Although Pouncey writes: “The ‘What in your own life does this remind you of?’ approach to books {is appalling}…” – I did just that – found pieces in the book that I could relate to – don’t we all?   And I enjoyed her detailed descriptions that were vivid enough to see.   Perfect Reader is a thoughtful, gentle read – not for those who like their books action-packed – but for one who enjoys introspection – and maybe a reconciliation with the past.

Flora’s mother rants that she would remove the word “closure” from the English language, but Flora finally does find closure in the end, and goes on with her life.  As for me, I became what Lewis Dempsey defined as an “understander,” savoring all the words.

2 thoughts on “Perfect Reader

  1. You had me at the title! I love the quotes you included. Some books just begged to be marked and reread often.

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