In 1972, two seconds were added to time. Twelve year old Byron knows this because his friend James, the smartest boy at school, tells him so. When Byron notices time shifting, he causes his mother Diana to make a serious, tragic mistake. She seems unaware of the full consequences of the incident at the time, but a strict sense of honour compels Byron to tell his mother the whole story. Her guilt leads her to befriend someone outside her usual social circle, and this in turn sends her life into a horrible tailspin.
Parallel to this story is that of Jim, a middle aged man in the present day. Suffering from severe OCD, he leads a restrictive life. When he gets a chance at love, he must overcome his fears, and his crippling sense of self, in order to grab at it. This story is linked to that of Byron and Diana, and the author brings everything full circle at the end.
Perfect didn’t captivate me as much as Rachel Joyce’s earlier book The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry did. Despite the second storyline eventually tying everything together, its interjections detract from the emotional experience of reading the much more compelling 1972 plot thread. Despite the story being told from Byron’s perspective, its most compelling character is Diana. Sweet and innocent, she is bullied by her husband and taken advantage of by a friend. As readers, we see the warning signs way before she does, and want desperately to stop it from happening, yet, much like Byron, all we can do is watch.
The book’s title comes from a scheme concocted by James for him and Byron to save Diana. James is obsessed with Diana, and even though he’s a twelve year old boy, his attempts to insert himself into her life and “rescue” her creep me out. He’s a bit too intense, and Byron, like his mother, a bit too trusting. For example, when Byron reports to James something his mother’s friend said, James says he should have been there, ostensibly so he could give a different witness perspective, but really, because he wants to be the one to “save” Diana.
Even worse than James is Diana’s friend Beverley. I understand her motivations, but her actions are despicable, and particularly when done to someone as vulnerable as Diana.
In Perfect, Joyce explores the experience of the outcast. Beverley is too poor to fit in with Diana’s socialite friends, and the woman Jim falls in love with is too brash to fit in with his co-workers. Yet even the characters who seem to fit in don’t — Diana’s position within her social circle is easy to sever, and even when Jim’s co-workers rally around him, he is still clearly apart. The book isn’t just about what it means to connect with outcasts, nor just about how we are all outcasts in some way, but rather about relating in general, about the risks the come with connecting with other people and about why such risks may be worth taking. The theme of connection is one Joyce explores as well in Harold Fry, and while I applaud her versatility, I miss the heightened focus on only a handful of memorable characters that made Harold Fry so memorable. In Perfect, only Diana is as compelling, and the story suffers for it.
Thank you to Random House of Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.