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A story about perfection


By Kate Grenville

Viking, $24.95, 415 pp

Reviewed by JAYE TERRY

In Kate Grenville's The Idea of Perfection, perfection is nowhere in sight. Certainly not in the small backwater town of Karakarook in the Australian Bush (population 1374) where the story takes place. The town's main street, Parnassus Road, is as "wide and empty as an airport runway, lying stunned under the afternoon sun," writes the Sydney-born Grenville. Its general store has turned into a mini-mart where "you couldn't window shop convincingly . . . unless you were in the market for dead flies."

Perfection is not evident in the outward appearance of Grenville's main characters either. Douglas Cheeseman, a shy, gawky man with "jug-handle ears," is an engineer who is afraid of heights. Harley Savage is a "big, rawboned, plain" woman who is a museum curator and quilter with three failed marriages and a heart condition. She quilts patchworks from drab scraps of fabric. Both are middle-aged and plagued with insecurity and self-doubt based on unresolved events in their past.

Everything about them, in fact, is awkward and imperfect, even their first meeting. Savage is walking down the street, not looking where she is going, and collides with Cheeseman who is stepping out of the entrance to his hotel. When they collide, he staggers and nearly falls. Cheeseman is in Karakarook to tear down the Bent Bridge, an old wooden bridge just outside of town. Savage is in Karakarook to help establish a heritage museum.

One person in the town, however, sees herself as the embodiment of perfection: Felicity Porcelline, the bank manager's wife. In fact, she would "rather be dead than not be perfect," says Grenville. At 41, Porcelline has resolved not to allow her face to develop the slightest suspicion of wrinkles, for example, and so she carefully rations the number of times she smiles. "Smiling did immense damage. People did not realize, smiling away recklessly," writes Grenville. "The corners of the eyes screwed up, the cheeks creased, the upper lip stretches. She had tried it in the mirror. The bigger the smile, the more lines it etched into your skin. The more often you smiled, the worse the lines got. She was not even going to think the word wrinkle."

Felicity is blinded though by her devotion to outward appearances. Her refusal to look beneath the surface threatens to destroy her.

Meanwhile, Cheeseman and Savage, while they don't match the stereotype of physical perfection, learn that perfection can come in unexpected shapes and places. The Bent Bridge, for example, may be badly damaged, but "the damage was the very thing that made it strong," writes Grenville. Savage's pieces of fabric may be drab and uninteresting alone, but "a dull piece could become a jewel" when placed next to another piece.

"An arch is two weaknesses which together make a strength" is a quote from Leonardo da Vinci that Grenville uses at the beginning of The Idea of Perfection. By the end of this funny and poignant story, we realize that can also be true of people.

St. Petersburg resident Jaye Terry, on leave from lawyering, is at work on a novel.