The Idea of Perfection: Readers' Notes

Thematic Summary:

The Idea of Perfection is set in Karakarook, a little country town dying on its feet. The people of Karakarook are divided on a heritage issue: the old Bent Bridge. Floods have pushed this bridge into a question-mark shape: "it had chosen to bend rather than break" (p.62), and some of the townspeople think it should be pulled down. Others think it will bring much-needed tourist dollars to the town.

Douglas Cheeseman is an engineer sent to demolish the Bent Bridge and replace it with a concrete one. Harley Savage is in Karakarook to advise the local heritage committee about a museum they plan to establish. From the first page, Harley and Douglas are on a collision course.

Both of them are haunted by the idea of perfection - they're painfully aware of their own inadequacies, and this creates seemingly insuperable obstacles to developing relationships with other people. In the course of their month in Karakarook, both of them undergo profound changes. They come to terms with their own inadequacies and faults, as Harley comes to see: "She was only that most ordinary of criminals, a human being" (p. 353). Having forgiven themselves, they can also forgive each other, and come together at last.

Set against this story of accepting imperfection is the sub-plot of Felicity Porcelline, the bank manager's wife. Felicity would rather be dead than not be perfect. She's determined, for example, not to allow her face to develop the slightest suspicion of wrinkles, and carefully rations the number of times she smiles each day. "Smiling did such immense damage" (p.111). But the more fiercely she tries to control the world around her, the more chaos erupts and threatens to destroy her.

"How do people get on?" is what impels Douglas out into the streets at night to peer into people's windows, and it's a question all the characters ask as they consider the baggage of their pasts. Harley carries with her the accusing fact of her third husband's horrific suicide. When that happened, it confirmed her in the self-doubt that was born in her as a child, when she was the dud of her high-achieving artistic family. Harley feels, deeply, that she's no good - worse, that she's dangerous. The closer people want to get to her, the more she needs to push them away: "Being adored was something she had come to mistrust." Over the years she's developed an abrupt, abrasive manner, a woman "whose eye-teeth looked like fangs".

But she's capable of love - that's proved by her relationship with her three sons. "Children adored you, but in their case it was not a test. There was no need to get anxious about no being perfect. No matter how unlovable a mother you were, they still loved you. She had not had any choice but to love them too. She did not need them to ber perfect." (p.42)

Douglas' life has always been overshadowed by the fact that his father was a famous war hero, killed in action before Douglas was born. His dead father, perfect in the way that only the dead can be, is a permanent reproach. Douglas "was not stupid, but he knew his face often looked stupid". His ears stick out, his nose is a big sunburned beak, and he can never find the right words. Cruellest twist of all, he's that laughable creature, an engineer who suffers from vertigo, condemned to a lifetime of small jobs that are close to the ground.

Douglas has been told, especially by his ex-wife, that he was "no good with people". His idea of himself has been eaten away until now, in his fifties, "Sometimes he felt the urge to apologise simply for existing (p.48). He sees the strength in Harley as well as the weakness, and loves her for both: "She was flesh and bone together, bending without breaking. It was what he loved about her." (p.334). It takes a moment of crisis for him to discover a strength in himself that allows him to get close to her.

Felicity knows no way of getting on with other people except with the surface of herself. With her long-suffering husband Hugh, she's cordial enough. She even allows him two smiles per day. Her little boy is just another thing in her life that has to be perfect, so she tries to mould him into the shape she wants. She's obsessive about housework, and spends a lot of time worrying about getting wrinkles (the problem is, worrying about wrinkles gives you more wrinkles).

Finally, the lid of perfection that she's tamped down on herself breaks open and she embarks, catastrophically, on an affair with the butcher. It's nothing as deep as love, it's simple lust: nothing more than skin, rubbing up against another skin. The affair with Alfred Chang is just one more in what seems to be a long line of what she euphemistically thinks of as "little awkwardnesses". Felicity is clearly on a path to disaster.

As well as the humans, fretting in their different ways about their lack of perfection, there's a dog that attaches itself to Harley as soon as she arrives in Karakarook. The dog isn't troubled by ideas of perfection. Like a mute guardian angel, it attaches itself to Harley and doesn't let go, in spite of her discouragement. Finally, painfully, she comes to accept what the dog, like Douglas, is offering: the gift of uncritical love.

"How do people get on?" There is one couple in the book that understands this from the very beginning. Henry Henderson - known to everyone as "Chook" - is all in favour of knocking down the Bent Bridge. His wife Coralie, however, is the driving force behind the Heritage Committee, determined to save the bridge. But their public conflict has nothing to do with the private reality, which is that Chook and Coralie know how to love each other in a way that goes beyond disagreement.

The Idea of Perfection is a book of opposites and paradoxes. The Bent Bridge itself is one such paradox: it's been damaged, and badly. But, paradoxically, "the damage was the very thing that made it strong" (p.62). The patchworks that Harley makes is another: they're made of scraps, left-overs, rejects of fabric, and yet when they're put together they make a thing of beauty. In the same way, the Heritage Museum isn't full of silver teapots and lace christening robes, but the ordinary, workaday things that people have improvised out of poverty - those are the things that are now priceless. Another kind of paradox is provided by the concrete that Douglas loves so much. It's a despised material, so ordinary no-one gives it a second glance - just like Douglas, in fact. But the way he sees it, concrete is the most miraculous of materials: a fluid medium that simply takes up the shape provided for it rather than imposing its own, and in the end, concrete is the key to his ingenious plan for saving the Bent Bridge.

A quote from Leonardo da Vinci provides the epigraph for this book: "An arch is two weaknesses which together make a strength." Leonardo was talking about bridges, but The Idea of Perfection takes the idea and plays with all its possibilities. Human beings are weak, but together in a relationship, they can provide a strength for each other. Each can be the equal and opposite force the other needs. It's a matter of working with weaknesses rather than against them.

Kate Grenville's other books take as their theme the obstacles that come between men and women and prevent them understanding each other. In the past, she's explored some of the darkest places of the human heart. In this book, she's found a way of marrying the "light" and the "dark" so that they make a harmonious whole. Conflict, the working of opposites against each other, isn't denied, but transformed into something positive, something more like a conversation.

Like one of Harley's patchworks, The Idea of Perfection is a richly-patterned whole made up of many small and intricately-crafted details. In the foreground, the main characters make their journies of discovery, in among the complex lives of a vivid cast of minor characters. Behind them all is the landscape: Karakarook, a little country town brought to life in a wealth of precisely-observed details, and the countryside around it, drawn as sharply as a photograph - and arching over it all, that big, generous, forgiving country sky.


Discussion Starters:

Is The Idea of Perfection a good title for this book? Or would you give it a different title?
Did the epigraph - "An arch is two weaknesses that together make a strength" - add anything to your understanding of the book as you were reading it?

Do you agree with Jane Sullivan (see "reviews" on this site) that The Idea of Perfection is a "comic tale?" Or does it verge on tragedy?

The book shows two people undergoing a transformation - Harley into someone who can accept love, Douglas into someone who's brave enough to offer it. Did you find it convincing that two people can have such a radical change of heart?

Do you agree with Peter Craven that a country town like Karakarook is "a natural setting for quiet moral drama and the celebration of the action of human goodness?" Or is the view of the country town put forward in this book a rather idealised one?

Kate Grenville may not have intended to be patronising towards country people, but do you think she is?
Do you agree with the reviewer who says that "there is not a trace of sentimentality" in The Idea of Perfection?
Like Harley, do you find yourself thinking differently about concrete after reading the book?

Does this book take up a position on the heritage-versus-development debate?

Several reviewers have mentioned Grenville's use of italics. Why do you think she uses them the way she does in this book, and does it work?

Do people really talk the way they do in this book?

Although The Idea of Perfection is written in the third person, each chapter takes the point of view of one of the main characters. Do you find this an effective device, or do you think it weakens the story?

Apart from its humour, what purpose is served by the sub-plot of Felicity? How would the book be different without the sub-plot?

What futures would you write for Felicity and Hugh?

Is Felicity a racist?

Who started the fire at the back of Freddy Chang's shop?

17. Do you think The Idea of Perfection would make a good film?



"Out of the Dark": by Jane Sullivan, The Age

Kate Grenville's new novel is called The Idea of Perfection, but when she started work on it she had no thoughts of perfection, and just two ideas: bridges and patchwork. There were going to be two characters who were each attached to one of these things. And the story was going to be warm, optimistic, funny.

It had to be. Grenville's previous novel Dark Places, which took her 10 years to complete, was a journey inside the mind of Albion Gidley Singer, a man who raped his own daughter. "In my mind I went through the darkest place one can write about, and I kind of got out the other side," she says. "And this is what I came out with: how dark and light can live together."

As she says, it's radically different from anything she's done before. Her high reputation rests in particular on two prizewinning and much-acclaimed books, Lilian's Story and Dark Places, companion tales of daughter and father. Though they can both be funny, they chart essentially grim and harrowing territory. Critic Peter Craven called Grenville "a practitioner of the art of Australian Gothic."

The Idea of Perfection is about as Gothic as a lamington. It's a comic tale of Douglas and Harley, a man and a woman from the big city, coming together awkwardly, bashfully, with many misunderstandings, in Karakarook, a small Australian country town. Real heartwarming Aw shucks Sentimental Bloke territory, readymade for a movie or a TV series (it's no surprise to learn she's now writing a screenplay). The publisher even had the idea of blurbing it as "Ballykissangel on the page".

"It seemed a good idea at the time," says Grenville of the Ballykissangel line, with as near a thing to a grimace as you can detect down a phone line from her home in Sydney. "The thing they were picking up on was the microcosm of the tiny community."

In fact, The Idea of Perfection - like Tim Winton's Cloudstreet - is one of those books that totally transcends the almost corny folksiness of its elements. The theme of being perfect - two characters who try and expect to fail, and a disturbingly fractured third character who tries too hard - seems as if it was always there, fully understood, in Grenville's mind. But for a long time, the idea of literary perfection frightened her away from writing at all.

When she teaches creative writing, she tells her students that the greatest problem beginning writers have is that they want everything to look exactly right straight away. She found that out the hard way. Studying English Literature at Sydney University gave her "a bit of an inferiority complex that I was not Henry James, or Virginia Woolf, and I didn't see how I could be. Nobody said, 'Why don't you go and read Virginia's first book?' It's okay, but it's no work of genius. That would have helped me."

Instead, Grenville was so put off writing that she went into the film industry, and indulged her "obsessive compulsive anal retentive part" by fiddling around with film editing. She only found the confidence to write when living overseas, particularly when she did a Master's degree in Creative Writing at the University of Colorado.

She returned to Australia in 1983 with an unfinished novel that became Lilian's Story, one of the most admired winners of the Vogel/Australian awards. As Craven put it, "Kate Grenville hit the literary scene with a greater portent of literary genius than any writer in our recent history".

She's not a perfectionists, she insists. She's really quite sloppy: she doesn't identify with Felicity, her immaculately groomed mum at the school gates, but with the other mums, the ones with the drooping bra straps that make Felicity shudder. She says she writes to try to understand: "It becomes like an itch, you have to go on, scratching away." While the latest book was not quite a Dark Places - style marathon, it still took a lot of scratching: about five years ( she writes while her children are at school ) and more than 20 drafts. "I had to explore a lot of dead ends," she says.

Grenville's fictional Karakarook ("Gateway to the foothills!" says the sign in the Cobwebbe Crafte Shoppe, with a long wobbly dribble sliding down from the exclamation mark) is a composite of places she and her husband, the cartoonist Bruce Petty, and their two children have visited in the school holidays. "I look at a country town with the pleasure and excitement of it being exotic and foreign" she says. "I've found myself taking notes of the lovely things I noticed. And often a sad feeling, that a very good and valuable part of Australian culture is dying on its feet."

Was there a danger that the big-city writer might sound patronising? "Yes, the last thing I wanted to do was to be a city smart alec at the expense of country folk. I wanted to capture their wonderful quirky distinctiveness. They have a very healthy indifference to matching up to any kind of stereotype. At all times it's the city newcomers who make complete fools of themselves in the country - they're chased by cows, they don't know how to get through fences . . . "

One of the funniest and saddest elements in the book is the way Harley and Douglas constantly castigate themselves inwardly for their failure to make the proper connections. It's fiendishly infectious. The reader, too, curls up in self-conscious ball: why did I do that silly laugh, why did I say that, why didn't I make eye contact . . . . "Everybody has that morning-after feeling . . . we have this idea in our heads that we have to be perfect," Grenville says. "But Harley and Douglas have their epiphany: not only that they don't have to be perfect, but that it might be better not to be perfect."

The moment when this theme became clear to Grenville was when she discovered a quote from Leonardo da Vinci: "An arch is two weaknesses which together make a strength". That, she says, is the story of human relationships.

But creating the novel was nothing like so clear and straightforward. Grenville has long been fascinated by the process of writing fiction, how a shape can slowly emerge from muddle of seemingly unconnected impressions. She offers practical help through the middle for aspiring writers in her manual, The Writing Book, and has charted the progress of other writers in the book she wrote with Sue Woolfe, Making Stories: How Ten Australian Novels Were Written. Now she's thinking of writing up her own memoir of how The Idea of Perfection came into being.

Talking about this development to a literature and psychiatry conference, she once said: "A novel isn't an object presented to a writer in one huge revelation. It's just the end result of a long tortuous process. That process, rather than the end-product, is in many way where the book is really alive."

One of the first things she did for this novel was to find out about engineering and building bridges, even though she didn't yet know why it would be important. "I began by feeling I was a trespasser. That apartheid between the arts and the sciences is a very powerful thing. But once I started talking to engineers, what I realised was that building a bridge and building a novel are exactly the same thing. I said to one, what's the best thing about being an engineer? He said , having a new problem to solve every day.

"So it gave me enormous pleasure to stride into the engineering library at the University and take out books. I can't understand any of the maths of it, I wouldn't walk over a bridge I'd built, but I see the basics."

The patchwork idea came when she was talking to another mother while waiting for her children at school. "She was telling me about a quilter who was an engineer . . . putting shapes together in a structural way. One thing led to another. Once on to a track, everything I found out about quilts and patchwork fitted into using the imperfect." She even made a few quilts herself. "I love that moment when you put two fabrics together and something happens which one alone can't do. But I'm a rather careless person. I don't have the patience to do it properly."

For previous fiction, Grenville had used words and music to put herself into the mood and voice of the book: she read Darwin to get Albion Gidley Singer's voice, Shakespeare and Jane Austen's letters for Lilian. With The Idea of Perfection, it was photographs. "I covered the wall of my study with snapshots I took of old timber bridges, cows, hills, textures of wood on an old fence posts. I stared and stared at these little snapshots, putting myself back there to hear the sounds and smell the smell and feel that dry dusty air."

She fell in love with the Australian countryside, she said, but there's not a trace of sentimentality in the writing: "I can't bear that kind of gushy purple prose, full of adjectives."

Future projects include a creative writing manual for high-school students and a possible novel about an ancestor who was reputed to have murdered his wife by pushing her downstairs. All to be accomplished by a formidably sharp and precise mind that also cultivates the dreamy woolliness of creation, and still uses tricks to overcome the crippling urge to be perfect.

"I write by hand." Grenville says, "to encourage myself to think that nobody is going to read it. So it doesn't matter how bad it is."
"Nobody's Perfect": Angela Bennie, Sydney Morning Herald

"To be alone, secretive, a presser of my palm to glass panes, looking out at life": this is an image of women that recurs in Kate Grenville's work, a sad quatrain to the female state: and it is an image of woman that lies like an archaeological trace beneath so many of her stories' surfaces.

It is a surprising image, in many ways, for Grenville, who in life appears so open and outreaching in her relationship to the world. No pressing of the palms for her, but an open-hearted embrace would seem to be the Grenville trope for life.

Yet her stories focus on women peering out at the world - more often than not at men, but equally, at choice - from behind glass panes, if not literally then psychologically or metaphorically: and it is her Joan in Joan Makes History - the writing of history from a woman's point of view she was commissioned in 1988 to do as a Bicentenary project - who actually spells out the condition. As Grenville writes her, Joan as Everywoman emerges as both an outsider in history and an insider locked away in the fabric of history; though active, rarely acknowledged, written to the margins.

Grenville first came to wide critical attention with Lilian's Story in 1984, when it won the Vogel Australian Award for best unpublished novel (it was published the next year, to much acclaim), a story about an outside/insider based on the estranged, eccentric, bizarre life of Bee Miles.

The year before, her short-story collection, Bearded Ladies, was published - and another unpublished novel, Dreamhouse, about the removed, isolated nature of a couple's marriage, was the runner-up for that year's Vogel prize.

Dreamhouse went on to be published in 1986: and Grenville's place as a writer interested in oddities, eccentricities of personality, internal subjective states at odds with the external appearances, was established.

She was not to write another novel for 10 years. And when that novel did appear, it brought with it a shock. Dark Places was a troubling, uneven, irregular retelling of Lilian's story, but this time it was the story from inside the mind of Lilian's molester and rapist, her father, Albion Gidley Singer.

In this dark place it was now the male sensibility she was reaching for, but a predatory one, which, if it did indeed look through any glass, it was through it darkly, and with arrogance.

The book, though the reading of it was a disturbing experience for many, was shortlisted for the 1995 Miles Franklin Award (in one of those strange ironies, it was pipped at the post by a novel that indeed had come from a dark place, Helen Demidenko's The Hand that Signed the Paper) and it won that year's Victorian Premier's Literary Award.

But Grenville's surprise return journey to Lilian's Story of 10 years before is significant in terms of what was happening to her as a writer.

Where she had begun with the female gaze through the window-pane, she was now just as preoccupied with what was on the other side of the glass, looking in onto and affecting that consciousness. She realised there were two figures in the Grenville frame - polarised, isolated, separate, positioned on either side of the glass - but, nevertheless, two.

The Idea of Perfection, which hits the bookshops next week, is Grenville's latest novel. It follows swiftly on the heels of Dark Places, as if on wings. It is a love story.

"One day I came across a quote of Leonardo da Vinci's which set the hairs of the back of my neck on end," says Grenville. "He says: an arch is two weaknesses which together make a strength.

"I had been interested in bridges. I am interested in women painters and I was fascinated that a lot of them - Grace Cossington Smith is perhaps the most well-known, but there were many others, Dorrit Black, Jessie Traill - who often used unfinished bridges as their subject matter, especially the Harbour Bridge when it was under construction.

"I was interested in why women should be interested in this image - why were they using this . . . I was thinking of writing something about this. And then I came across the quote from da Vinci . . . I suddenly saw it is a description of a relationship. If you were perfect, you wouldn't need one, you couldn't love. But it is because of our weaknesses that we are able to; when you put the weaknesses up against each other, the stresses and strains are their strength. What this means is that the more the two parts of the arch lean against each other, the stronger it is. I suddenly knew I had a book. I suddenly knew I had a love story."

The Idea of Perfection tells the story of two ungainly, awkward people, Harley Savage and Douglas Cheeseman, who collide together through chance, and who gradually overcome their differences and learn to love.

"I deliberately made the two characters imperfect and all too aware of their imperfections, haunted by them, in fact. And what they come to realise is that their imperfections are what gives the relationship, the love that grows between them, its strength."

What is interesting in this new development for Grenville - "yes, it's the first love story I have written, and, oh, the joy of it, the pleasure of it, to write about love after all that darkness" - is that it could not have happened without that journey she took back into the darkness.

"Perhaps some will say it is a reaction to Dark Places. But . . . I see it as part of a process. I had to look into the dark, and having looked at the dark, now I want to find out how to incorporate the light with it.

"So one of the juxtaposition I play with in this book is light and dark . . . Now I am interested in balancing the two.

"It is now a marvellous thing to be able to handle two people who come together. Up to now, I have always been conscious of what drives men and women apart. For me, this book is just the next logical step in my writing."

Yet what is also interesting about Grenville's writing process is that it is the principle of illogicality that governs it.

"It is like quilting," she says. "It is a question of putting together things which don't necessarily, on the face of it, have any overt relationship, or value, but something happens when you put it all together.

"I am always writing these fragments of ideas down: they fill my notebooks. When I begin to write the book I write them down on pieces of paper, those Post-it notes, and stick them up on the window and move them around and around into patterns and rearrange them until I feel they fit together. Then something extraordinary happens.

"The plot and the structure of the book grow into a whole. I allow my unconscious to play with the pieces and, putting the fragments up on the window like that, allowing the material to behave in its own way, the whole emerges."

It is a powerful image of the writer she gives - standing at her window pane, moving her fragments around into patterns with her hands - perhaps her reflection is looking back at her on the glass - while the story, the world outside its backdrop, slowly crystallises before her into structure and form.

"Because in a way, the material is buried there in you," she says. "Unconsciously you have chosen this subject all the way along the line, right from the beginning. You just have to allow the process to work itself out and that becomes the structure. That becomes the writing. Then you have your book." 

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