By Rachel Joyce

(Random House, $25, 400 pages)

Who is this author?                          

Rachel Joyce made her debut as a novelist in 2012 with the international bestseller, “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.”  An actress who had leading roles with the Royal Shakespeare Company, she also has written more than 20 plays for BBC Radio 4, and has won awards for playwriting. She lives in England, on a farm in Gloucestershire.

What is this book about?

Can two seconds change a life? Seems unlikely, but “Perfect” says otherwise. It opens in 1972, when an 11-year-old English  schoolboy becomes obsessed with the fact that two seconds are being added to the Leap Year. Byron thinks even those fleeting moments can open the door to unforeseen disaster, and though he is mocked for his outsize concern, it turns out he was right. As the clock adds the seconds, he inadvertently distracts his mother, Diana, who driving him and his sister to school. An accident ensues, his mother is oblivious, and everything changes. Byron and his best friend come up with a plan to protect his mother, but Diana, upon learning of the mishap, begins to deteriorate and nothing goes as planned. And there is more to it: another central character, Jim, is introduced in the present day portion of the story, and he struggles with obsessive compulsive disorder. Joyce ties these threads together in a surprising denouement that brings resolution and redemption.

Why you’ll like it:

Joyce’s first novel, “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Frye,” was laced with British whimsy and charm. “Perfect” has another emotional color: tense, mysterious, dark and disturbing. What ties them together are Joyce’s insights about mental disorders and her skillful writing. This is a novel of psychological suspense that readers will find fast-moving and intriguing.

What others are saying:

Kirkus Reviews says: “The time is out of joint, as the follow-up to a popular novelistic debut brings a slightly darker edge to its fable-like whimsy. Having earned a best-selling readership in both the U.S. and her native Britain with The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (2012), Joyce returns with an even less likely but more ambitious piece of fictional fancy. The protagonist is 11-year-old Byron, a reflective and innocent schoolboy who becomes overly concerned when his best friend, James, tells him that two seconds will be added to this leap year to somehow even things out. After his mother assures him that “[w]hen it happens you won’t notice. Two seconds are nothing,” Byron responds, “That’s what nobody realizes. Two seconds are huge. It’s the difference between something happening and something not happening.” And with the addition of those two seconds–or not–something happens–or not. And whether or not something happens, everything changes. A veteran of the stage and a radio playwright before turning to fiction, Joyce specializes in the sort of insights that some find charming, others cloying and a style that could sometimes pass for fairy tale, other times for Young Adult (though those readers wouldn’t have much patience for her plotting). The novel alternates between chapters that follow what happens to Byron, his mother and their family (which the reader quickly realizes is more dysfunctional than Byron does) and ones that concern an adult sufferer of obsessive-compulsive disorder who resorts to menial labor when the British mental health system fails him. “No one knows how to be normal, Jim,” a social worker tells him. “We’re all just trying to do our best.” The two plot lines must inevitably intersect, but the manner in which they do will likely surprise even the most intuitive reader. Many of those who loved the author’s first novel should at least like her second.”

“Joyce’s dark, quiet follow-up to her successful debut, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, could easily become a book club favorite. . .  Perfect is the kind of book that blossoms under thoughtful examination, its slow tendencies redeemed by moments of loveliness and insight. However sad, Joyce’s messages—about the limitations of time and control, the failures of adults and the fears of children, and our responsibility for our own imprisonment and freedom—have a gentle ring of truth to them,” says The Washington Post.

Publishers Weekly says: “An 11-year-old boy makes an error that brings tragedy to several lives, including his own, in Joyce’s intriguing and suspenseful novel. One summer day in a small English village in 1972, Byron Hemmings’s mother, Diana, is driving him and his younger sister to school when their Jaguar hits a little girl on a red bicycle. Diana drives on, unaware, with only Byron having seen the accident. Byron doesn’t know whether or not the girl was killed, however, and concocts a plan called “Operation Perfect” to shield his mother from what happened. Previously, she has always presented the picture of domestic perfection in trying to please her martinet banker husband, Seymour, and overcome her lower-class origins. After Byron decides to tell her the truth about the accident, she feverishly attempts to make amends by befriending the injured girl’s mother, but her “perfect” facade begins to splinter. Joyce sometimes strains credibility in describing Diana’s psychological deterioration, but the novel’s fast pacing keeps things tense. Meanwhile, in alternate chapters, Jim, a psychologically fragile man in his 50s, endures a menial cafe job. Joyce, showing the same talent for adroit plot development seen in the bestselling The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, brings both narrative strands together in a shocking, redemptive (albeit weepily sentimental) denouement. The novel is already a bestseller in England.

The Barnes & Noble review says: “. . . Though here, too, Joyce’s characters carry soul-searing secrets, the compensating sugary whimsy of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is gone. In its place Joyce has constructed a world of merciless cause-and-effect. And though Perfect is told through the close-focus view of two unreliable narrators, a crucial revelation in the end turns the story on its head even as it sews it together.

“[F]or one person to help another, for one small act of kindness to succeed, a lot must go well, a myriad of things must fall into place,” Jim thinks near the end of the book, finally finding light at the end of his ordeal.

“And the author’s own act of kindness at the end of the book leaves the kaleidoscope transformed from broken vision to a hard-won kind of grace.”

When is it available?

Take a few seconds and borrow this one from the Downtown Hartford Public Library or its Dwight branch.

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