Despite new books on my new iPad and old books on my iPhone, the bookstore at Gatwick Airport was too good to resist. Of course I bought a book – “Perfect” by Rachel Joyce, the author of “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.” Using the premise that an unforeseen event can change life in an instant, Joyce builds a story around two seconds added to the clock in the 1972 leap year to regulate the time.
The story alternates between the friendship of two eleven year old boys, Byron and James, and the adult life of one of them, who is struggling to survive after years in a mental institution. The two seconds added to the world clock provide the catalyst for the incident that changes lives.
When Byron’s mother, the beautiful and “perfect” Diana, takes a short cut through a poor neighborhood in her Jaguar, a young girl on a bicycle rides out onto the road and she hits the girl. Only Byron witnesses the accident, and Diana drives on and continues her life as though nothing has happened.
The plot follows the changes in lives when Diana realizes, a month later and with Byron’s help, that she has been a hit-and-run driver, and must make amends to the poor girl. Beverly, the girl’s mother, sees Diana’s guilt as an opportunity to improve her own life and becomes Diana’s new best friend, using Diana’s fear of her husband, a weekend commuter to their Georgian estate in the country, to attain a better life for herself.
The two boys suspect that Jennie was not really hurt and create elaborate schemes to prove fraud.
James initiates Operation Perfect to protect Diana, whom he idolizes, and to find out what really happened. The boys are sure that it was during the extra two seconds of 1972 that this strange accident took place. Eventually, the story escalates to another accident that changes the boys’ lives forever.
As the story of Diana, with her mysterious background, sad marriage, and yearning to please continues, Joyce inserts alternate chapters about the life of one of the boys as an adult now in his fifties, who lives in a van and stutters through OCD rituals to keep his sanity. The suspense of why and how his life deteriorated to this sad existence keeps the reader waiting for the big reveal. When it comes, with a reunion of the two friends as adults, the revelation is a surprise.
With the flavor of the English countryside and a peek into the lives of the “ladies who lunch,” Joyce’s story has all the elements of astute observation and gentle humor as Harold Fry. Once again, her agenda goes beyond the mystery and drama of the story, and introduces a main character who will stay with you after the story ends. Everything ties together neatly and the importance of the extra two seconds is carefully withheld until the novel’s end, leaving you to wonder if it was all destined to happen.
Related Review:The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry