“It was after her father’s death Flora returned to Darwin.” With this simple (and pleasingly Victorian) sentence, Maggie Pouncey launches the tangled doings of her accomplished debut novel, Perfect Reader. Darwin is the New England college town where Flora Dempsey, the daughter of the school’s beloved president emeritus, grew up. Lewis Dempsey has died suddenly, bequeathing his house, and control of his literary estate, to his only child.
At 28, Flora long ago abandoned the claustrophobic small-town complacency of Darwin for life in the city. She is reluctant to go back, but less hesitant to leave her unfulfilling job at a trendy magazine. The house her father left her is not the one she grew up in—before her parents split up, they lived in the grand, college-owned President’s House—but rather a charming old farmhouse that he bought when he stepped down and returned to teaching. Nonetheless, being back in Darwin uncovers many long-repressed memories. One year in particular resonates: the difficult year Flora’s parents divorced and she forever lost her best friend.
If Flora is undecided about what to do with her father’s real estate, she is absolutely terrified of her role as his literary executor. Lewis was a populist poetry scholar, and managing his work should mean little more than granting reprint rights. But not long before he died, her father gave Flora the manuscript for some poems he had written, poems she did not bother reading at the time. When she finally does read them, she discovers they are startlingly intimate love poems that both embarrass and fascinate her. Flora’s impulse is to keep the poems private, but the object of Lewis’ late-in-life passion, an art history professor named Cynthia Reynolds, has her own motivation for seeing the book published.
Flora casts Cynthia as her adversary, and seeks the counsel of her father’s attorney, Paul Davies. Paul is a Darwin College graduate who gave up hopes of a literary career in order to stay close to home and keep a watchful eye on his drunken father. The two fall into a relationship, imperfect at best. In order to educate herself in the subtleties of modern poetry, Flora also decides to audit a class taught by her father’s erstwhile nemesis. The stage is set for a bit of literary intrigue, at turns comic, with no one quite playing his or her role as written.
Flora struggles not only with the details of her father’s afterlife, but with her own past, of which Darwin provides daily reminders. When her parents divorced, Flora moved with her mother from the President’s House, and her relationship with her father shifted. An attention-getting escapade had a heartbreaking outcome. Flora’s mother, a quick-witted, unhappy woman, has long been her daughter’s harshest critic, but also, when push comes to shove, her most ardent advocate. Their well-drawn, complicated relationship is perhaps the greatest strength of this engaging book.
Pouncey writes best when she burrows into Flora’s head, with its marvelous amalgam of wise insight and callow emotions. Some loose ends are left untied, as in life, and the denouement comes on a bit quickly, but page for page Perfect Reader is an assured literary debut.