Maggie Pouncey's 'Perfect Reader' about a young woman and her father's poems

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By Sarah L. Courteau
Wednesday, June 30, 2010

PERFECT READER

By Maggie Pouncey

Pantheon. 268 pp. $24.95

The eminent literary critic Harold Bloom famously described the anxiety of influence: the difficulty that poets have shaking free of the imprint of their predecessors. How much more difficult to be the daughter of an eminent literary critic who casts a shadow that threatens to obscure your young life?

In "Perfect Reader," first-time novelist Maggie Pouncey, daughter of novelist and former Amherst College president Peter Pouncey, makes artful use of her origins to describe a year in the life of 28-year-old Flora Dempsey. Flora has spent most of her 20s working as an editor at a shelter magazine and avoiding meaningful conversation with her divorced parents.

Her mother, a permanent activist of sorts, wears a lot of black and a chip on her shoulder. Her father is a retired president of a liberal arts college in a small northeastern town. Many years ago he wrote a popular book called "Reader as Understander" that established his reputation. When he dies suddenly, he leaves Flora his large farmhouse, the task of serving as his literary executor, and a sheaf of poems dedicated to a mistress Flora knew nothing about.

She gladly leaves New York, where her life over the last several years will sound grimly familiar to any number of striving young women: "A gradual diminution in photocopying responsibilities, an ever-fluctuating stream of anxiety and anxiety medication, a haze of cigarette hangovers and haircuts she couldn't afford, afternoons spent in Laundromats reading Susan Sontag at the recommendation of some boy with only minimal comprehension, sex without foreplay and urinary-tract infections, air-shaft apartments with bathroom doors painted over so many times they wouldn't shut."

After moving into her father's house, she spends the next several months trying to decide what to do with several of her father's legacies: his handsome young lawyer (who becomes Flora's boyfriend), his poems (publish them? burn them?) and his uncomfortably chummy lover. As the daughter of one of the town's most prominent citizens, Flora is public property, and returning forces her to grapple with that fact as well as with a long-ago tragedy that blighted a childhood friendship.

Pouncey's plot is low-key (one dramatic development is the publication of a student newspaper story about the existence of the poems). But her portrait of a sensitive girl numbed by loss and confused because life didn't follow the trajectory suggested by her upbringing is intelligent and honest. So is her treatment of the emotional knobbiness of grief. And her take on life in a liberal college town (smug yet unhappy) and in the literary world (snide yet seductive) is deliciously spot-on.

Courteau is literary editor of the Wilson Quarterly.


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