"Perfect Reader" by Maggie Pouncey
There's a confusing force behind the (mis)label of "first novel" that mythologizes the new author, flooding him/her with the misnomer of "rising star," among other deceiving titles. My purpose is not to criticize the process of examining an author's experience or maturity and how the media introduces said author; this, I believe, is inconsequential. What I am most concern with is how this label straddles the thin line between a promising future and the proverbial "kiss of death" effect. Maggie Pouncey needs not be afraid. Her "first novel," "Perfect Reader" shines with the quality of an established author. The novel evokes not only the writer's experience in terms of plot building and expository techniques, but also a curious knowledge of intimate emotions--the very emotions that make fiction a mirror of life. Ms. Pouncey's talent is "up there" with the likes of Claire Messud, Arundhati Roy, and Zadie Smith. "Perfect Reader" is a bright start to a future in contemporary fiction that totally banishes the artificial barrier of "first" or "debut" novel. I recommend "Perfect Reader" without reserve.
The novel builds on the relationship between Flora Dempsey and her recently deceased father, Lewis Dempsey, poet and college president, among many other known and unknown roles. I've already read some reviews out and about the Internet encircling interpretations around the theme of Electra complex. I will borrow a statement previously recorded to describe this limited interpretation: To say "Perfect Reader" is about Electra complex is to say the Grand Canyon is just a big hole in Arizona. Catch my drift? The fact that Flora shares the spotlight with so many other characters in the plot is not a deficiency in this novel. On the contrary, there's Cynthia, Flora's father's last lover, and the strain it puts on Flora to account as one of those examples of shared spotlight. Cynthia is characterized in a way that makes the reader change directions... to like her, or not to like her, that might just be the question. Flora's mother is another case of unpredictable twists and turns. It is the same with Flora, I am afraid, but it is that ambiguity that made me want to read this to whatever conclusion it came to. The ties between the characters is masterfully done. Who would think to make Lewis Dempsey's attorney (Paul) Flora's lover? That I did not expect. It is not that it makes the plot complicated in frivolous ways, but the nature of the relationship between Flora and Paul is a novel in and of itself. Those who claim Flora as an ambiguous character impossible to relate to must consider the opposite of that argument: Flora is NOT a predictable character. Would that had made her more likable? I doubt it. The character does its job quite well, and keeps the reader interested in not just the protagonist and her decisions.
Reviewing a book is not the same thing as summarizing a plot. My reading of "The Perfect Reader" was also enjoyable because of the craft and artistry of the language. Here's a passage that I just had to reproduce here: "He imagines the two of them meeting years earlier, when they were young, when she was still a girl, her body 'serpentine, unbitten; the bulb below my ribs not yet ripened.' Had he not realized what was undone under such revisions? For example, Flora? Better to have Cynthia from the beginning than to have had Flora at all? And her mother, beyond being erased, became the emblem of all that had gone wrong, fifteen years of marriage reduced to a regrettable error corrected only with the second coming of love, the Edenic Cynthia, the post-apocalyptic redemption of sins past, the clean slate, or brave new world, the wonder and rightness of it all, at long bloody last. If her father had lived, these paroxysms might have come to seem overdone even to him, but he had not lived, and so their passion was poised and immortalized in the state of perfection, in the state of poetry." This passage refers to Flora's painful interpretation of her father's poems. She feels he wanted to erase his Ante-Cynthia life, erase Flora from the face of the planet, and the rest of an entire world with it. And all of this for Cynthia? Impossible. Thus Flora does all she can (as her father's literary executor) to delay and/or stop the publishing of the poems. The conclusion of the struggle regarding with the poems displays a character that, having gone through a gamut of emotions, grows in perspective, maturity and compassion. Her relationship with Cynthia settled, Flora embarks on seeking her future away from Darwin College.
There's another passage I had to keep reading again and again. This takes place when Flora meditates on what the place (Darwin College) and her father's role in it meant to her. The reason I love this passage so much is because, for the first time in my academic life, I have been told what academia really is and what it stands for without any need for apologies. "She was done with Darwin College. What was it to her? Her father's employer; her family's former landlord; the setting of her childhood. A collective of disappointed people burying themselves under ideas. Who privileged (their word) thought about all else. Ambitious thinkers, grasping, striving, while trying to look contemplative, nonchalant, and depressed. And reading, reading, reading. Infinite reading. Always ready with the right reference, the counterargument, the dazzling associative leap. They had what looked to the rest of the world like the most outrageous gig--you barely had to be there; you were an expert; you walked to work. And yet there was something wrong with all of them." I take this as someone having the insight and the brass to tell it like it is. I read this quote to a colleague and she asked me if I didn't feel in the slightest insulted. Like a politician, my answer could have been based on false emotion, but it felt great to see her react to such an aggressive definition of what we do.
I enjoyed "Perfect Reader" tremendously. I pray and hope Ms. Pouncey is not buried under the monikers and titles defining "Perfect Reader" as her "first novel." She has much to offer and knows quite well how to do it.