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Look Inside | Reading Guide
Jul 12, 2011
| ISBN 9780307474803
Jun 15, 2010
| ISBN 9780307379276
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Jul 12, 2011 | ISBN 9780307474803
Jun 15, 2010 | ISBN 9780307379276
Flora Dempsey is the headstrong only child of Lewis Dempsey, a college professor and world famous critic. When Lewis passes away, Flora returns to her New England hometown to act as his literary executor. There, she finds herself responsible for a manuscript that he was secretly writing at the end of his life—love poems to a girlfriend Flora didn’t know he had. As Flora is besieged by well-wishers and literary vultures alike, she tries to figure out how to navigate it all: the fate of the poems, the girlfriend who wants a place in her life, the wounds left by her parents’ divorce, and her uncertain future. Brimming with energy, humor, and the elbow-patchy wisdom of Flora’s still-vivid father, this enchanting debut is the uplifting story of a young woman striving to become the “perfect reader” of her father’s life, as well as her own.
In this enchanting debut novel, Maggie Pouncey brings to life the unforgettable Flora Dempsey, the headstrong and quick-witted only child of Lewis Dempsey, a beloved former college president and famous literary critic in the league of Harold Bloom. At the news of her father’s death, Flora quits her big-city magazine job and returns to Darwin, the quaint New England town where she grew up, to retreat into the house he has left her, filled as it is with reminders of him. Even weightier is her appointment as her father’s literary executor. It seems he was secretly writing poems at the end of his life—love poems to a girlfriend Flora didn’t know he had. Flora soon discovers that this woman has her own claims on Lewis’s poetry and his memory, and in the righteousness of her loss and bafflement at her father’s secrets—his life so richly separate from her own in ways she never guessed—Flora is highly suspicious of her. Meanwhile, Flora is besieged by well-wishers and literary bloggers alike as she tries to figure out how to navigate it all: the fate of the poems, the girlfriend who wants a place in her life, her memories of her parents’ divorce, and her own uncertain future. At once comic and profound, Perfect Reader is a heady, uplifting story of loneliness and of the spur to growth that grief can be. Brimming with energy and with the elbow-patchy wisdom of her still-vivid father, Flora’s story will set her free to be the “perfect reader” not just of her father’s life but of her own as well.
Maggie Pouncey was born in New York City and grew up there and in Amherst, Massachusetts, and New Haven, Connecticut. She received her B.A. and M.F.A. from Columbia University and has taught writing at Columbia, the Bard Prison Initiative, and… More about Maggie Pouncey
“A whip-smart debut. . . . Wry and emotional.” —People “Pouncey’s portrait of a sensitive girl numbed by loss and confused because life didn’t follow the trajectory of her upbringing is intelligent and honest. . . . Her take on life in a liberal college town . . . is deliciously spot-on.” —The Washington Post Book World “Maggie Pouncey’s Perfect Reader is wry, vivid, loving, and exuberantly bookish. I enjoyed it tremendously.” —Meg Wolitzer “[A] wryly perceptive first novel.” —Boston Globe “Sparkling, shrewd, and at times hilarious in its parsing of family dynamics, academic competition, the solace of literature, the aggression of the blogosphere, and what it truly means to be a ‘perfect reader’ and a generous soul.” —Booklist “A novel of . . . sentence-by-sentence pleasures.” —The Columbus Dispatch “Marvelous. . . . Page for page Perfect Reader is an assured literary debut.” —BookPage “An absolutely wonderful novel that I hope every one of you who love fine fiction will read.” —Ann La Farge, Hudson Valley News “Pouncey’s debut is marked by an extraordinary blend of tact, wit, mercy, and intelligence. The father/daughter knot is explored from an entirely fresh perspective, and it ties us in from beginning to end.” —Mary Gordon, author of Circling My Mother “Pouncey hones her wry wit in poking fun at small town academia, and readers with an inside view will laugh at its truth. . . . An unusual coming-of-age story. An intelligent and witty debut.” —Sacramento Book Review
Do you think of PERFECT READER as a coming-of-age story?Yes and no. The story traces two years in Flora Dempsey’s life: one from her childhood and the other in her late twenties—a bit old to come of age, perhaps. But in the sense that Flora is trying to figure out where her parents’ lives end and her life begins—a difficult and thorny task for her—then I suppose it is. Describe the idea of the “perfect reader.” Why did you choose this as the novel’s title?This is a notion you sometimes hear, from both writers and scholars—I’ve heard Martin Amis described as Saul Bellow’s perfect reader, for instance. It’s the notion that there is someone in the world who can and will read a book exactly as the author hoped it would be read. It’s a recognition fantasy, the fantasy of being truly seen and known, and there’s something fascinating, and moving, and troubling about these fantasies of recognition we all travel around with, as a kind of antidote to aloneness. So for me, it was a way into the question of how well we can know another person. In Flora’s case, she becomes her father’s literary executor, where the job description as she sees it is to be, essentially, the perfect reader, and so the question becomes how well can—and really, should—a child know a parent. You grew up on a few different college campuses, the daughter of a professor and later a college president. How did the environment surrounding your childhood affect your writing of this fictional town of Darwin and of the world of academia? I started writing stories set in the town of Darwin in high school, maybe fifteen years ago now. Darwin is at once everywhere and nowhere I’ve lived. The college campus is a place I know intimately, in my bones. I’m certainly not an academic, but I grew up watching and listening to academics, and I was always struck by their particular breed of humor, and disappointment. My upbringing caused me to draw a possibly false correlation between intelligence and depression; I wanted to understand why these impossibly smart people who seemed to have an ideal professional life, one that allowed for great leisure and great probing conversation and thought, seemed so dissatisfied. Anyway, I’ve been trying to sort it out ever since. It’s an obsession I’m hoping writing this novel has cured me of. Enough Darwin! as Flora herself might say. Though the novel focuses intensely on the relationship between Flora and her father, while he was alive and now that he’s deceased, with her memories of him, there are many relationships on the periphery of that story that directly affect the plot of the novel. Flora returns to Darwin and begins to inhabit her father’s life—she’s inherited not only his house and his work, but also his dog, his girlfriend, his rival in Darwin’s English Department, and her relationships to all these things and people are complicated by her relationship to her father. The longer I worked on the novel, the more populous the town of Darwin became. I guess I’m more interested in characters than I am in plot, or, to put it another way, I’ve tried to allow story to emerge by putting the right people in a room together. I love Flora’s father’s house. What was the inspiration for the house? Do you live in a house like this, or did you at one time? The house is a character, just as the town is a character. Flora’s former job was at a shelter magazine, so houses and rooms—the way things look—are particularly important to her. Also the elusive feeling of home, the longing for a true home takes up a lot of space for her. Flora’s father’s house borrows bits and pieces from several houses I’ve known. I live in the city now, in an apartment, so in writing the book I spent a lot of time moving through all those houses in my mind. How does memory play into this novel? Flora’s memories and the presence of her past play a big role in the novel. She recalls and replays key moments and things her father told her. In the way fresh experiences can conjure old wounds, she is living in more than one time—for much of the novel she is outside of time and trying to find her way back. This may make the book sound like science fiction, which it is distinctly not, but as Joan Dempsey, Flora’s mother, says near the end, part of the point of being human is time travel—that in our minds, at least, we can move between now and then. This is both a blessing and a curse.
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