Maggie Pouncey Perfect Reader: A Novel

ISBN 13: 9780307378743

Perfect Reader: A Novel

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9780307378743: Perfect Reader: A Novel

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.

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About the Author:

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 the New York City nonprofit Girls Write Now. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and son.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1
 
Borrowed Houses

It was after her father’s death Flora returned to Darwin. Returning—with all the criminal associations—to the scene of her growing up had been a task she’d put off, rebuffing her father’s invitations. “You don’t go home much, do you?” friends would ask. Home—that fuzzy image of innocence, that haven of recognition. The place you long for when adrift.

Her father’s voice in her mind’s ear paused her: So all I had to do, Flo, to get you to Darwin was die? But it did not stop her. She caught a taxi to the bus station, and took the bus to its terminus, a desolate former mill town thirty minutes from Darwin, and then she loaded herself and her body bag of a suitcase into a country cab—more properly called a car, a crumby minivan, with nothing marking it as professional in any  way—now bringing her to her father’s house.

She did not sublet her apartment in the city; there  wasn’t time, and the thought of someone else sleeping in her bed and filling her closets made her  anxious— an only child, she’d never liked to share. She knew what people did in other people’s houses, and did not want it done to her. And who knew how long she’d be gone. But she had taken the time to pack all the things she liked best, leaving the B garments behind. She packed her three favorite pairs of jeans of varying degrees of tightness and wear, a pair of black corduroys, two  A-line skirts, one  high- slitted denim pencil skirt, and a black silk dress she’d bought several years back upon receiving her first reasonable paycheck, imagining a life of cocktail parties and ciga­rette holders, and worn once. She packed socks and tights, three delicate wool cardigans, one milky white  cable- knit cashmere turtle­neck, five  long- sleeved cotton shirts of assorted saturated colors, clogs, her turquoise  old- lady slippers, sweatpants and two concert T-shirts she’d had since high school, boots (one pair heeled, one flat), her six sexy pairs of underwear and her four unsexy, old, com­forting pairs of underwear, and various scarves and hats. She packed a short, beaded  1920s- style flapper  dress—a prime example of her favorite category of clothing: inappropriate for every occa­sion (and thus equally appropriate for all occasions)—and a pair of pewter-colored four-inch heels of the same category. She packed soap, shampoo, and other ablutions (as if she were traveling to the tundra, where such items could not be procured, and not to New England, where they could, but then they might be inferior), and, in the midst of the vanities, she buried the folder of her father’s poems. If I lose this bag, she thought, forcing the zipper across its length, I’ll be very sad.

Darwin was three hours from everywhere: Flora was unready to arrive. It was dusk, and quiet, her country cab passing the odd sta­tion wagon loping home.  Darwin—the one place in America SUVs had not yet colonized. Perhaps they were against the law. Here the indigenous station wagon still reigned supreme over his niche. Here talk of carbon footprint was as routine as talk of gas prices elsewhere. The town of Darwin knew unhappiness—the Darwini­ans self- satisfied but not content. Thick with academics and their broods—idlers, ruminators, moseyers. Thoughtful people, think­ing thoughts. No one hurrying down the few placid streets. Hadn’t the Darwinians anything urgent to attend to? Yes, they had not. Poets and the world romanticize being  idle—the boon of free time praised, guarded, envied—but anyone who has idled for a living knows the damaging effects it can have on the moods.

The minivan was overheated, stifling. The window  wouldn’t budge. Flora’s hair itched with sweat. She was being cooked alive. She took off her hat, uncoiled her scarf, unbuttoned her coat. She was a child. Her clothes, hidden all day beneath layers— why did one prefer to keep one’s coat on in public transit?—announced a com­plete regression. The faded black sweatshirt, the army green pants with the patched knees and safety-pinned waist, the red sneakers that she dearly loved. “Not a day over sixteen,” her father had said of her face. At what age did the compliment of youth expire?

The driver tried talk: “What brings you to Darwin?” He had the overeager voice of one stranger requiring something of another.

“You know,” Flora said. “Family.” But once she’d said the words, they sounded unkind. The man’s face ravaged, ungroomed. It was possible he did not know much of family. A woman in his life would have suggested a haircut weeks ago.

Still, the unkindness hanging in the close air was preferable to chat. She glanced at her cell phone to check the time. It was now “rejecting” text  messages—an apt technological gesture—its tiny brain at capacity, and Flora thought with pleasure of her friends agonizing over compassionate abbreviated condolences, only to have them bounce right back to their machines as though repellent.

Her father’s house sat at the edge of the town proper, a  ten-minute walk from the Darwin College campus. An old farmhouse, it had recently been repainted an excellent taupe. When, exactly? Even through the fouled window of the car, it had never looked prettier, or she  hadn’t remembered it that way. A pretty house, cer­tainly, but she’d thought of it as resigned and downtrodden in that way peculiar to academics and their surroundings. But her father, it seemed, had even taken up gardening, or else hired someone to work on the historically neglected flower beds circling the house like a moat, the odd stem standing its ground as though it  didn’t know it was November. The house was a relic from a happier time. The house was showing off. The house was oblivious; it  hadn’t been informed of recent developments.

She overtipped the driver as an apology for her curtness and he hauled her morbid duffel to the  door—newly painted, slate blue. Flora hesitated, as at the door of an acquaintance, where she might not be welcome, or know anyone inside. The house of a sixty-eight­year-old retiree bachelor, a reclusive reader, an academic with no more classes or committees to order his life around. Would it be pathologically unkempt, like the foul apartments of boys she’d dated post-college, the disordered universe of men living alone?

Would it feel as though he’d dashed out for a haircut, or for dish soap, and could return at any moment? Or would the house have the aura of the abandoned, like a woman whose husband runs out to gas up the car and forgets to come home?

The house was hers, on paper.
 
Funny how death did that—made things yours.

It was a few years after Flora and her mother moved out, after they who had needed only one house suddenly needed two, after all that had gone wrong, that her father had finally left the President’s House and come here to this house he owned, giving up one of his worlds, the world of industrial stoves, and Betsy coming to work every day, a world where you had to dial 9 to get an outside line, as though it were an office, which of course it also was, a world of  life-size paintings of dead men and grand chandeliers and fire escapes, to return to the life of the full-time academic—the word full-time in this case meaning you had to show up four times a week for approximately two hours a pop. He’d loved it right away, his old farmhouse. “I like a house that tells you how it feels,” he said of its creaks and moans. In winter there was a fire always burning, in summer the windows thrown open. “I’m embowered,” he said in spring, the yellow green of leaves and buds filling every view. In high school, Flora had stayed there with him Tuesday nights, that old habit outlasting its necessity, her mother completely analyzed, for better or worse, and no longer fleeing Darwin weekly for the city. Her father’s house. A place she  visited—if she  visited—with a packed bag.

Inside, all appeared tidy. She dropped her bag in the kitchen, waiting.

“Hello?” she called, to disturb the silence. There you are, her father would say if he were there. “Here I am.”

She started with his study,  surveying—no need to linger now. Off the kitchen, browns and grays, a blend of woods, snug. Books on shelves like rows of crooked teeth. On the desk, tall piles of papers. But no reading glasses lying, arms crossed in wait, on the table by the Shaker chair. No forgotten encrusted cereal bowl. She skimmed her fingers across the old Smith Corona portable with its round green keys. Nothing. Entering the homes of other people was something Flora did for a living—or had done. She was adept at moving through other people’s spaces, taking inventory. A profes­sional snoop.

Back through the kitchen. No cottony coating of dust on the banister. Upstairs, the bed made, the duvet new and crisp and hotel- like. Not a single sock on the  wide- planked floor. No bath mat on the terracotta tiles of the bathroom floor, but folded and hung neatly on the side of the tub like a coat hung over an arm. No unearthly blue toothpaste smudges on the sink, only gleaming porcelain. Had her father even lived there? Had anyone? In her job, she’d had to orchestrate the removal of the personal for photo shoots: She’d scoured living rooms for family snapshots, reclaimed refrigerators from the collage of a child’s artwor...

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