Sunday, August 15, 2010

Review of the Day: The Idea of Perfection

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.

(If you woud like your review of this book or any other of Kate Grenville's books listed here, please leave a comment with a link to your post and I will add it.)


  1. Sounds interesting! Thanks for your insights.

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  3. Sharon -- I thought this book was very interesting. I had never read her books before and am happy to have found her.

  4. I read this a while ago and remember it being a pretty good literary facsimile of a crookedly but beautifully pieced quilt. But the only detail I really remember is the husband's suicide. You are right: that piece could really have been chosen differently.

  5. One of my all time favorite books is The Secret River by Kate Grenville. It is historical fiction at it's finest, IMO. I have The Idea of Perfection on my TBR.

  6. Sounds interesting, it's too bad the digressions don't fit into the overall story. That's always a chance an author takes, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.

  7. Late to respond (blame "blog brain"), sorry.

    JG: Unfortunately, now that I think if the book months later, it's the suicide that sticks in my head much more than the beautiful story.

    TR: I definitely want to read more of her books. I'll keep an eye out for Secret River.

    Man: Actually, the fact that the digressions didn't fit with the rest of the story worked very well with the whole imperfection theme. That struck me even more re-reading my review than when I read the book.


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