The Executor’s Song

by Julia M. Klein
Perfect Reader
By Maggie Pouncey
Pantheon Books, 277 pages, $24.95
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This defense seems to paper over a fear of not measuring up. But it turns out that Lewis had disappointments of his own. Being a critic — Thomas Hardy’s verse was his specialty — was never his passion. “He had wanted to be the poet, and not the poet’s ideal reader,” Pouncey writes, “but had taken the safer route. And had been dissatisfied all those years on the wrong side of the words.”

Now, Lewis has named Flora his literary executor, and the fate of the poems rests with her.

As Flora encounters her father’s late-life lover, his lawyer, and his archrival, she broods on her own childhood loss of innocence, an incident involving her best friend. The details gradually emerge in the course of the third-person narration, which hews to Flora’s point of view and switches between past and present. (The present-day story interested this admittedly imperfect reader far more.)

Pouncey’s book is moderately fast-paced and fun to read. Its characters are persuasive composites of generosity and pettiness. And the central metaphor of the perfect reader evokes our staggeringly imprecise knowledge of the people closest to us. As Pouncey writes, “We saw so little, so wrongly, with the people in front of us, and yet with words on a page, we fooled ourselves that we could get it right.”

Flora wrestles with these errors of understanding. And she experiences the ambivalence common to executors as they riffle through their parents’ archives, filled with beribboned love letters, photographs, evidence of ancient family disputes, and perhaps even unfinished literary masterpieces. This is territory achingly familiar to anyone with a dead parent and an attic. “We want to know our parents’ secrets, their lives before and beyond our own,” Pouncey writes. “But then to know can be terrible. To know is to want to not know.”

Not always, and not necessarily. It is true that to know one’s parents better, to rub up against their youthful ambitions and their middle-aged regrets, can be a tender, heartbreaking process. It will likely bring tears and regrets of its own. But it is also a great gift. In Perfect Reader, we sense that Flora Dempsey, over time, will come to realize that.

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