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The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, May 28th, 2002


The Idea of Perfection

by Kate Grenville

A review by Christina Schwarz

The simple plot of this novel — a woman and a man have conflicting goals, hers to preserve history by establishing a museum, his to institute progress by replacing a picturesque old bridge with a new concrete one — functions merely as a dummy on which the Australian novelist Kate Grenville drapes a gorgeous and intricate study of three characters. Two are engaging and wildly imperfect — Harley Savage, a textile artist three times married, who fears attachment and has therefore forced herself to become hard and unapproachable (yes, Harley might be a cliché — if she weren't so quirky and fully realized); and Douglas Cheeseman, a ridiculously awkward and excruciatingly self-conscious engineer who's terrified of heights. The third, Felicity Porcelline, is disturbingly inhuman in her obsession with perfection (to avoid developing wrinkles she smiles only when necessary). Harley and Douglas, used to hiding comfortably, if unsatisfyingly, from themselves in the anonymity of Sydney, find themselves exposed under the "big pale simple skin of sky" in a small town in the Australian bush, with happy results. It's an amusing and moving story of unlikely love, but one could read it just to marvel at Grenville's astounding writing. Whether probing her eccentric characters' doubts and anxieties or describing the hot, desolate landscape of the bush or capturing the way its inhabitants talk and think, her sentences — deceptively casual in their diction and rhythm — peg every moment with exquisite and surprising aptness.

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