There is a small irony in the fact that Kate Grenville won the Orange Prize – awarded to the “best” novel in English -- for a book that celebrates the imperfection in all things. The Idea of Perfection examines how people cope with their own imperfections and handle the imperfections in others.
The story focuses on Harley Savage, a part-time curator and textile artist who comes to Karakarook, New South Wales, to help the town starts a Pioneer and Heritage Museum. The seams in her art quilts are intentionally askew, reflecting, perhaps, her views of how people relate and life works.
Harley fancies she has a “dangerous streak,” so has walled herself off from relationships with other people, including her own children and even the stray dog that follows her home. Readers learn early on that her husband’s suicide turned her reclusive. But when the grisly details emerge, social seclusion seems like a mild reaction – it’s a wonder she wasn’t institutionalized. Grenville did not have to go quite so far to make the story work.
With other points, Grenville has a lighter touch. Douglas Cheeseman is the sympathetic anti-hero of the piece. An engineer sent to Karakarook to replace the old, Bent Bridge (there’s the imperfection idea again), Douglas bumbles through every social encounter, barely able to talk, consumed by his self doubt. He is drawn to Harley but, in the awkwardness of their meetings, is all but incapable of moving the affair forward.
Side stories amplify the theme of imperfection. Primary among these is the mesmerizing story of Felicity Porcelline and her relationship with the town’s butcher. Felicity is obsessed with perfection – keeping her house spotless, her face unmarred by wrinkle or freckle, and her interactions with the townsfolk above reproach. Things are definitely not what they seem, however, and it turns out that this seemingly perfect woman is the least perfect of all.
Felicity’s story and some of the other digressions do not mesh with the overall plot. They seemed tacked on or laid over the top. Rather than lessening the quality of the book, these misalignments underscore Grenville’s theme that perfection is impossible and imperfection should be embraced.
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