The Idea of Perfection takes place in the Australian town of Karakarook, NSW, population 1374. Harley Savage, a middle-aged textile artist, travels from Sydney to create a heritage museum. Douglas Cheeseman, an engineer, is sent to demolish an old bridge. From this initial setup I expected intense conflict and community uprising, but that turned out to be secondary to the story of human foibles and relationships. Both Douglas and Harley are unmarried; he is divorced and she is a widow. Both are lonely, but they resist forming relationships with others. Douglas remains on the fringe of the local work crew. Harley feels awkward with others, and stubbornly resists a stray dog's repeated attentions. Both draw gradually to one another.
In fact, the entire book moves in a very gradual manner. Grenville oh-so-slowly reveals details that build a complete picture of the main characters and the town's citizens. At the beginning of the book, Douglas is looking out of an upstairs hotel room window. Only later, after learning he suffers from vertigo, does it become clear that just looking out the window was an accomplishment. Details of Harley's childhood and married life are droppped like a trail of breadcrumbs. Slowly the reader sees these two, their physical imperfections, and their inherent inner goodness. In contrast, Grenville introduces local housewife Felicity Porcelline, who is portrayed -- again, gradually -- as someone obsessed with her appearance, the cleanliness of her home, and her son's academic performance. She appears perfect on the outside, but inside she leads a self-centered, deceptive life.
This book had a surprisingly strong impact on me. I loved the slow reveal of the characters, and their ultimate depth. And while the book moved quickly, Grenville suggests plot in the same way she does her characters. There were many times in this novel where she made a subtle point that connected several other events in a way that literally left me wide-eyed, astonished, and saying "OH ... !!" out loud. The Idea of Perfection is sure to be one of my top reads of 2008. ( )