Book Review: An extra 2 seconds means the world in 'Perfect'

NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICEJanuary 26, 2014 

  • ‘PERFECT: A NOVEL’

    by Rachel Joyce; Random House ($25)

Rachel Joyce’s second novel, “Perfect,” is better and less treacly than her first, “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.” It is eerier, too. Joyce builds her novel around two 11-year-old English boys who have heard that the year 1972 will be two seconds longer than other years and wonder about the cosmic consequences this change may have.

The story is told through the eyes of Byron Hemmings, a wealthy boy blessed with a dreamily beautiful mother. When Byron tries to imagine the interior of his mother’s mind, he pictures bejeweled drawers, because she is as orderly as she is lovely. He is too young to notice how cowed his mother, Diana, is by his father, Seymour, who isn’t home at the country estate much and demands total obeisance from his wife when he does show up. At a time when feminism is beginning to have an impact on other mothers, Diana dresses in the ultra-ladylike fashion that Seymour demands. She drives a Jaguar and is always expected to thank him for it.

Diana is so perfect that Byron’s best friend, James Lowe, is utterly bewitched by her. And both boys would do anything to protect her. So they leap to her defense on the morning she takes an unusual route to the boys’ elite school through a neighborhood usually considered too rough for them, and obliviously hits something with the Jaguar. The something Diana hits seems to have been a little girl on a red bicycle.

But the perfect Diana shows no signs of realizing this has happened. She is so pure in her denials that the boys aren’t sure what to think. James, the amateur detective of the two, starts what he calls Operation Perfect as a means both of protecting Diana and finding out what happened. The boys are sure that it was during the extra two seconds of 1972 that this strange occurrence took place.

Joyce does an inviting job of setting up these mysterious circumstances, and of drawing Byron’s magical closeness with Diana. Whether they spend time at their pond, in their meadow or, on one occasion he will never forget, in a restaurant where she lets him feel terribly sophisticated for ordering tomato soup and prawns even though it isn’t even lunchtime, this boy feels loved by his ravishing, devoted mother in a way that he may never feel loved again. Joyce doesn’t even have to say that. “Perfect: A Novel” radiates its own natural, understated foreboding, and even its title contributes to the sense of dread.

Eventually, the boys discover tangible trouble. There is small evidence of an accident on the car. And there is a woman named Beverley whose daughter, Jeanie, may have been the accident victim, even though at first she seems quite unharmed. But as Beverley insinuates herself into Diana’s life, and Diana encourages this, Beverley begins to seem more and more of a scam artist.

A great deal of authorial string-pulling is required to tug all the parts of “Perfect” together. But to Joyce’s credit, this is not a novel that will leave readers feeling tricked. When thought about in retrospect, everything that has happened in it, has happened for a reason.

The importance of the extra two seconds is carefully withheld until the novel’s end so that “Perfect” can consider what role the power of destiny has played in this story. Of all the secrets that emerge late in this touching, eccentric book, that is the most confounding one of all.

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