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The Idea of Perfection, by Kate Grenville.

December 18, 2012

The Idea of Perfection, by Kate Grenville. Penguin Books (2003), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 416 pages. First published 2000.

A warm and wonderful novel by a fine Australian author with the unusual ability to probe her characters’ thoughts and feelings.

The plot of this book is simple. Harley and Douglas have both come to a small, isolated town for brief professional visits. She is assisting local people set up a Heritage Museum, and he is supervising the destruction and replacement of a nearby bridge. Both are totally lacking in self-esteem and painfully awkward in dealing with others. Over time, the two develop a stumbling friendship, and both learn to move beyond the images they think they are required to present to find acceptance for who they really are.

Grenville is a brilliant writer capable of creating stunning and detailed landscapes. She takes her readers deeply inside her characters. We see the lies they tell themselves, and with the two main characters, we see them change how they think about themselves. We experience Harley’s fear of relationships, even her fear of relating with the stray dog that adopts and adores her. With Douglas we see him discover that he does have courage, in both physically and socially dangerous situations. Some characters in book are less flexible. Felicity, the wife of the bank manager, had wanted to be a model.  Grenville shows us her preoccupation with her own appearance and the lies she tells herself about other men’s love for her. Her internal conversation assuring herself she is not being racist toward Freddy, the Chinese butcher, is a priceless example of the lies we all tell ourselves. Her refusal to face reality highlights the magical discovery of the real world by Harley and Douglas.

As I read The Idea of Perfection, I marked phrases and sentences which particularly impressed me with the idea of coming back and quoting some of them. What I discovered in the process was the way Grenville used repeating images and situations to give her book both depth and unity. I was able to penetrate the surface of her writing and see techniques that are usually invisible to me. I found that exciting.

Darkness and light play roles in the book. We do not simply visualize them; we feel them physically. The harsh summer sun burns us and night envelops us. Shadows make their own patterns around the individuals. Harley’s quilts and Douglas’s bridge reveal patterns of darkness and light. Freddy’s photography studio is filled with bright lights and black corners in which Felicity is hidden and revealed. More abstractly, characters and the community have their own lights and darknesses. When the darkness within themselves and others is brought to light, Harley and Douglas choose to surrender their ideas of perfection for themselves and for others. In contrast, Felicity clings to her obsession with a perfect appearance.

I strongly recommend The Idea of Perfection to all who love excellent writing and a well-told story.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. December 18, 2012 4:02 pm

    Thanks for this review. I read this not long after it came out, and your review reminded me of how much, and why, I enjoyed it.

  2. December 18, 2012 4:10 pm

    This book was my introduction to Kate Grenville’s work and I still think it’s one of the finest. However, my personal favourite is ‘The Lieutenant’. Have you read that?

    Thank you for your concern about my health. I’m afraid things haven’t been too good. I hope you are better.

    • December 21, 2012 10:51 am

      This one and the Lieutenant are my favorites of hers

  3. December 19, 2012 3:59 am

    What a lovely review! Kate Grenville is an author I have long wanted to try – now I realise I MUST add her to the list for 2013. Have a very happy Christmas, just in case I don’t get another chance to comment before then!

    • December 21, 2012 10:53 am

      Thanks. I think this and The Lieutenant or the place to start.

  4. Sharkell permalink
    December 20, 2012 4:51 am

    I have recently read this book and I loved it as much as you did. I was struck by its simplicity and the book has stayed with me over the weeks since I read it. I keep thinking about the characters and how the story unfolded. It’s funny, I was out at a restaurant last night and the bench separating the diners from the kitchen was made out of concrete and I immediately thought of Douglas’ love of concrete!

    • December 21, 2012 10:53 am

      Thanks for your own story about concrete. I totally understand.

  5. annabelsmith permalink
    January 2, 2013 1:51 am

    I like this book very much – Grenville is so generous to her characters and she evokes Australian settings wonderfully. I enjoyed your review.

  6. January 2, 2013 9:40 am

    I agree although I had some negative comments about her treatment of Indigenous characters in some of her books. She wrote about them from the outside, as if they weren’t real, while she literally tries to get inside her white ones. I found the difference troublesome in the context of how well she writes about everything else. I can understand her hesitancy to do more with Indigenous people, but I found her solution a way to continue to separate our selves from them–even when she was explicitly trying to heal some of those wounds.

    • annabelsmith permalink
      January 3, 2013 9:16 pm

      That’s an interesting perception. And I can see what you mean.

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