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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch


In this issue:


Eileen Frost reviews the Idea of Perfection. Subtlety, restraint, and realism are displayed by Kate Grenville who knows life is rarely simple.


Wise Women, a book of portraits by Joyce Tenneson, presents women willing to display themselves, their aging selves, with pride and truth.


The Idea of Perfection
By Kate Grenville
Picador, $9.99

Finally! Last year's Orange Prize winner, The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville, has been published in the United States. Timing could not be better, as we assemble our books for summer reading. Along with Ian McEwan's Atonement, Robert Caro's newest volume about LBJ titled Master of the Senate, and some choice mysteries, be sure to bring Kate Grenville.

The Idea of Perfection is a love story reminiscent of some of Anne Tyler's best work. Two unprepossessing middle-aged people, acutely conscious of their shortcomings, meet when work draws them to the little town of Karakarook in New South Wales, Australia. Harley Savage, twice divorced, "never at ease," a fiber artist employed by the Sydney Museum of Applied Arts, has come to assist locals in setting up a "heritage museum." Douglas Cheeseman, also divorced, is a public works engineer who is afraid of heights and is thus assigned only to minor projects. He is labeled "a small-job man." He arrives to replace the old Bent Bridge, a local landmark the state deems unsafe.

Now the bridge looked weak, but it was not. It had been damaged, but the damage was the very thing that made it strong.

Douglas, who privately appreciates the pleasures of a good bridge, finds there are "variables" that have not been taken into account. His creative solution, which would permit the bridge to be shored up, baffles his superiors in Sydney and he is initially rebuffed.

Both Douglas and Harley become smitten by the rural landscape ("Nature was all aroundexpansive, generous, like a hospitable host.") They separately take long private walks in the country. They finally meet when Harley rescues Douglas from an assembly of cows who have backed him into a fence.

Despite this awkward introduction, after several days he musters up the courage to ask her for tea at the Mt. Olympus Panorama Caf. This goes well, and that evening both hope they will see each other again. But something they have eaten, perhaps the cream on the scones, makes them both sick. Harley uses her sick time to think of all the miseries of her past marriages, including one terrible event for which she blames herself, and steels herself to shun Douglas from then on. He of course blames himself for her coldness.

They are thrown together once again, inadvertently on opposite sides of the question of preserving the Bent Bridge. Harley is with the "greens" and Douglas's job makes him the target for their wrath. The resolution of this conflict will make you feel gleeful, not just at the outcome, but at the subtlety, restraint, and realism displayed by the author who knows life is rarely simple.

Kate Grenville, whom the New York Times called "a writer of extraordinary talent," won the 2001 Orange Prize, Britain's most valuable literary award (30,000), given to the novel in English written by a woman that best demonstrates "excellence, originality and accessibility." In so doing, she outdid Margaret Atwood, whose Blind Assassin, reviewed here earlier, won the Booker Prize. Grenville was born in Australia in 1950. She received a Master of Creative Writing from the University of Colorado. She teaches writing in Sydney, has written four other novels, and is married with two children.

Page 2: Wise Women

Daughter of an army surgeon, Eileen Frost grew up in libraries on military bases from coast to coast and beyond. A Senate staff member for five years after college, she spent many rewarding hours in the Library of Congress. She then spent a year in Europe, and after an interlude enjoying her small children, Eileen ran a catering business, became a librarian, and has worked at an independent school in North Carolina since 1984. Ms. Frost has two daughters, both avid readers. For questions, comments and suggestions, email Eileen Frost.


©2002 Eileen Frost for SeniorWomenWeb

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