Maggie Pouncey,
Perfect Reader
(Pantheon, 2010)

Maggie Pouncey's first novel, Perfect Reader, tells the story of a young New York City woman, Flora Dempsey, who has to return to her birthplace, the university town of Darwin, Mass., to settle the estate of her recently deceased father, Lewis Dempsey, former president of Darwin University and one of the most famous and esteemed literary critics in the United States, a man whose name is mentioned alongside that of Harold Bloom.

Flora has inherited her father's house and an obligation: instead of critiquing poetry, Lewis Dempsey was secretly writing it. He has left behind a manuscript, In Darwin's Gardens, and has named her his literary executor. She quickly meets Cynthia, another Darwin faculty member, who, it turns out, was her father's girlfriend. Since the poems were written to her, Cynthia wants them published and has lined up an editor who is very interested in bringing out the book. It's all too personal and too fast for Flora; she doesn't even want to read them.

All of this brings Flora to a crossroads. She has to come to terms with her own former life, growing up in Darwin, with her parents' divorce and with the competing demands on her father's legacy.

Perfect Reader is a novel that demands to be read on several levels. It's a coming-of-age story, a story of fathers and daughters, as well as daughters and mothers, an examination of the ultimate worth of a man's life and work and, of course, a brutal satire on small-town university life.

The author grew up in Amherst, home of the University of Massachusetts. Amherst is a town where the university is the town and Darwin is obviously based on Amherst. Since her father was on the faculty of the university, Pouncey had an opportunity to observe the absurdities of faculty life, the jealousy, academic infighting and the rest.

Whatever level you read it on, Perfect Reader is a good novel, one that would have better if attention had been paid to a couple of small flaws: for one, it suffers from a slow start. For a while, you wonder when the story is going to kick in. Once it does, the book picks up and offers a lot of pleasure.

The second flaw, however, is the amount of repetition in the book. As I read, I began to feel that if Lewis Dempsey described his poems one more time with the phrase, "some good bits," I was going to have to put down this book about poetry and go read some instead.

Still, this is a good book that entertains while making a couple of important points. It indicates that Pouncey is going to have a good future.

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

28 August 2010

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