The Perfect Man is a novel of character complexity; were the characters not so well done, it wouldn’t have been worth reading. Strong Annie, disturbed Lew, puerile Alvin, sophisticated Nora. And then there is our main character Raj, the Indian-English boy who is foisted upon his uncles by his father and then a woman who has no blood relation to him and no reason to allow him to stay except compassion (though she says she said yes just to take away any reason for his uncle to stay).
Raj is interesting because though the book’s stories twist around his life, he isn’t really much of a character throughout. He’s more of a catalyst for other characters, despite many events in the story taking place before Raj ever appeared on the scene (1950s’ small town, Missouri). Raj never completely develops as his own character, despite efforts to clean up in the end. In fact, the end felt a little rushed, a little last minute, a little too much like an expected but untidy red bow. Still, I liked Raj, ever a joker, usually unpredictable.
But I was amazed at how many of the characters I didn’t like. This town was full of humanity at its worst—or at least, the worst was highlighted. The plot itself is fairly simple (a boy without identity trying to find it among strangers), told staggeringly, jumping years ahead and then back. Subplots involve cruelty, alcoholism, murder, adultery, love, and the opposite of love. It’s not a particularly uplifting book. Many times, it’s absolutely disgusting. Alvin is inclined to find dead or almost-dead things and show his friends, and the group of middle-aged men in the book are manipulative and vicious and you wonder how they get away with it. And the women are sad, trapped, wanting what they can’t have and don’t know that they ever had, even for a minute. Ruth, the woman who takes in Raj, is the only independent woman in the book—she resists needing anyone or anything. Annie, Raj’s first friend in his new town, aspires to be like Ruth but it’s not in her nature to be free of needing to be loved.
I recommend this book to people who enjoy getting lost in characters more than plot, to people who have ever felt scornful of the place where they live and the people who live around them, and to people who enjoy writers who play with language—whether they play successfully or not.