Maggie Pouncey’s novel is about picking up after a literary scholar, the president of a small college in New England, after he dies suddenly. This sounded like an intriguing topic to me.
Maggie Pouncey’s debut novel Perfect Reader (269 pages, Pantheon, $24.95) concerns a young woman’s attempt to come to terms with her father’s naming her his literary executor. Lewis Dempsey has died suddenly, and his daughter Flora has returned to the New England college town where he worked. She is surprised to find a cache of poetry that she is supposed to decide about publishing. At first, she can hardly begin to read the poems, much less decide about publishing them.
She takes up residence in her father’s house, and she also deals with many issues of her own past. She of course spent her girlhood in this town, first in her father’s presidential abode, and later in the house with her mother where the two females moved after her parents' divorce. Flora feels odd living in her father’s house, and she feels odd to be back in Darwin, the town. She functions a bit as an automaton at first, both because of her grief for her dad and because she can’t quite deal with herself in this context.
As she settles in, she meets two key people. The first, Cynthia Reynolds, was her father’s girlfriend at the time of his death. She is devoted to his memory, and she would love to be friends with Flora too. As it turns out, she is the only other person to have seen Lewis’ late poems. No one besides these two women really knows that he wrote any poetry at all. As a literary critic, he always wrote about poetry, but he didn’t write the poetry itself. Now, however, it seems as if he has. Flora doesn’t yet know what to think about the poems, but Cynthia has decided a) they are great, and b) they should be published.
When Flora looks into the poems and sees that many of them are about Cynthia, she feels both hurt that her father didn’t write about her some more and suspicious of Cynthia’s desire to publish. The tension between these two women builds over the course of the novel. They cannot quite settle into friendship, and they seem to be working at cross purposes a lot of the time.
Flora also meets and takes up sexually, if not romantically, with Paul, her father’s attorney. Paul helps her with a few of her responsibilities as literary executor, and he also challenges her about the poems and what she plans to do with them.
The last important character as Flora tries to deal with the memory of her father is, of course, her mother. A truly wonderful creation, Flora’s mother weighs in with judgments and advice that are usually unwanted. But in the end, she is the person who helps Flora deal with the firestorm that erupts on the internet once it is known that she is sitting on these poems of her famous father.
Ultimately, Flora does decide to publish, but it is watching her get to that point that is really interesting. She is an irritating character in a lot of ways: oddly passive in pressing situations; vague to the point of aggressiveness at times; impulsive in her actions at the best of times. But still, she is a rich character, and the crisis in which she finds herself is surely intriguing.
I think Pouncey has done a good job in this, her first novel. There are some wonderful moments in this work, and they bode well for whatever other projects Pouncey may be planning.
Get a copy of Perfect Reader at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.