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The Idea of Perfection

3.64  ·  Rating details ·  3,072 ratings  ·  321 reviews

Harley Savage is a plain woman, a part-time museum curator and quilting expert with three failed marriages and a heart condition. Douglas Cheeseman is a shy, gawky engineer with jug-handle ears, one marriage gone sour, and a crippling lack of physical courage. They meet in the little Australian town of Karakarook, where Harley has arrived to help the town build a heritage

Paperback, 416 pages
Published June 8th 2001 by Picador (first published 1999)
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Average rating 3.64  · 
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 ·  3,072 ratings  ·  321 reviews

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Ron Charles
Dec 26, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Readers who are particularly successful and good-looking, please skip to the next page. Kate Grenville has written a book for the rest of us. Everyone who's ever returned from a great date to discover toilet paper trailing from their shoes will cling to "The Idea of Perfection" like an old friend.

This Australian winner of Britain's Orange Prize tells the story of Douglas Cheeseman, a chronically shy engineer, and Harley Savage, a museum curator who's been having a bad hair day since she was 12.
Although I have not participated in this year's challenge to read all of the Women's Prize winners, most of them are still books I would like to read eventually. This one is very enjoyable, despite having romcom elements that would normally deter me - what redeemed it are Grenville's sharp eye for detail and character, unobtrusive plotting and sense of humour.

The book is mostly written in fairly short chapters, each of which focuses on a particular character. The two dominant ones are Harley Sav
This book had lots of elements that I often don’t like, and yet…

It was quite slow-paced, but with a great turn of phrase. I have recently whinged about several books just being too slow for me while I’m impatiently waiting for something to happen, and this book should have made me feel like that. And yet…

I hate it when authors don’t indicate speech using quotation marks. Why do we have quotation marks if people aren’t going to use them? It wasn’t until page 62 I realised that there were no quota
Jan 18, 2015 rated it really liked it
I re read The Idea of Perfection because I remember absolutely loving this book. Set in a small town in the Australian bush, it’s an amusing story in an atmosphere of awkwardness of a romance of two people who have given up on love. They learn that they have flaws and that perfection does not exist within our nature and only in our minds as an ideal where they uncover the truths already embedded in their minds.

I spent most of the month not reading this book, because of other events going on in my life, but have now finished it. I didn't enjoy it as much as some of Kate Grenville's other books, but I did like the idea of writing about real people: shy, awkward, not outwardly attractive but with good qualities buried inside them and waiting for the right person to discover and appreciate them.

I found Kate Grenville's use of italics a bit irritating, but her descriptive writing is lovely:

"The dawn air wa
Nov 17, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: general-fiction
It doesn’t matter whether you live in the fictional Karakarook, NSW, or Kirkcaldy, Fife. If you’re one of life’s awkward people, you’ll recognise your self conscious self anywhere.

Harley Savage is outwardly confident, inwardly a bag of nerves, unsure of herself and of everyone else, although she assumes that they’re good with people and she’s not. I love how Grenville puts all the hackneyed phrases we live behind in italics to emphasise how hard we try to be what we think others expect us to be
Connie G
Nov 09, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Two plain, middle-aged people come into the rural town of Karakarook in New South Wales around the same time. Harley was working as a museum curator, helping the townspeople set up a heritage museum. Douglas, an engineer, had been assigned the job of tearing down an antique wooden bridge, and replacing it with a modern concrete version. Both harboring personal problems and socially awkward, they tiptoe around each other while an attraction develops. An abandoned dog that "adopts" Harley helps br ...more
Sep 29, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction, australia, audio
Perhaps it was the sound of this book that I liked so well, for undoubtedly it was the language that resonated in these descriptions of people and the bush. I liked, too, the story of a fabric artist finding inspiration in a bridge, an engineer seeing beauty in the spaces between things. I liked the idea that men and women can still find the possibility of love in unlikely places even as they age, though it seems perhaps too much fiction to think that we would expose ourselves. The performance o ...more
Sara Foley
Jul 18, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book is fabulous. As a reader, I loved the story and her descriptions of the characters and small town. As a writer, I was wowed by her use of language, her observation of the tiniest things, and the way she wrote about some of the very same themes that I write about - living in country towns, and the alternating feelings of connection and claustrophobia, and the idea of life as shades of dark and light, beautifully illustrated by the quilts metaphor. Beautiful! Bravo!
Adele Jones
Mar 27, 2016 rated it liked it
Kate Grenville has made a significant contribution to Australian literature throughout her writing career. Having experienced the quality of her work in the past, I really expected to enjoy this book. The premise around which the story develops is one that provoked interest, and the writing itself is rich with description. As much as I appreciated the superior skill with which Grenville draws out the nuances of each scene and character, at times the pace of the developing story suffered for the ...more
Feb 02, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Still an all-time favourite after being read many times.

I understand that Kate Grenville was encouraged to write something 'lighter' after the very dark novels, Lilian's Story and Dark Places. Since this was written light and dark have continued to be strong themes in her writing.

Harley Savage comes to the rural town of Karakarook to help the locals establish a heritage museum. But what the locals see as heritage differs from what Harley sees and wants. She is after the 'old stuff that most peo
Sep 20, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: five-star-rated
My second book by this author and I am just as impressed by her beautiful language as I was in the first. Her books are not page turners, but meant to be read slowly and attention paid to the turn of phrase. This takes place in a very small town in Australia (with a population of around 1350) so the people may seem boring to those of us living in a city. However, I was very taken with their simple lives and how happy they seemed.

Ms. Grenville again makes you actually feel the heat, the dryness,
Jun 29, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: womens-prize
My overall impression of this book is that Kate Grenville has mastered the art of making the boring interesting. It tells the story of two socially awkward, middle-aged, unattractive people who find themselves in an unprepossessing outback town. Neither the people, the town or the stray dog have much going for them, but with some good, humorous, descriptive writing, the author made me want to read about them.
There is a third outsider, who is not unattractive, but is just as self-conscious in soc
Sep 30, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favourites
The story actually revolves around 3 people in a small town called "Karakarook".
1.Harley Savage - a museum curator
2.Douglas Cheeseman- an engineer
3.Mrs.Felicity Porcelline - a common but beauty conscious housewife

Different people meet at a small place, different ideas, different relations, differents views and problems.A place where things dont happen, things are known, things that not cared about and people simple enough and easy with their life.

Writer has beautifully written the "
Cy Garcia
Jun 03, 2015 rated it really liked it
This was actually my mom's copy but she complained about the font every time she tried reading it so I did what any reasonable daughter ought to do: I stole it. Or maybe borrowed (with no intention of returning it-- as of now).

Anyway, since this book was originally "meant" for women her age, I don't know what to expect after I picked it up from her shelf. The title itself was interesting enough. But the story. Well, that's a different topic.

The book was basically about these two socially-awkward
Jan 23, 2012 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Writers,
Kate Grenville demonstrates here her great subtlety of observation and influence as a writer. From the smallest of towns she selects a few characters for their very ordinariness, and gradually displays their deep commitment to their own individual and internal values. Through the introduction of a couple of out-of-towners, who are there by invitation of the locals, she displays how what is lacking in the big city for these individuals can be discovered by the freeing up of space to be able to ap ...more
Shonna Froebel
Nov 19, 2012 rated it really liked it
On a recent visit to B.C. a very knowledgeable clerk in Tanner's recommended a couple of books to me. We'd had a short yet interesting conversation and I bought two books on her recommendation. This is one of them.
I'd read Kate Grenville before, but liked this one even better than the other I'd read.
Set in the little town of Karakarook, New South Wales, this follows three characters: two visitors and one who lives there.
Douglas Cheeseman is an unprepossessing middle-aged man who is in town as th
Feb 01, 2021 rated it really liked it
This is one of those stories that the writing just brings the setting alive, as though it's another character in the story. You really feel like you're in this small, dusty, hot, Aussie town. I actually preferred this to her other novel The Secret River (although that's more plot-driven). ...more
Aug 13, 2017 rated it liked it
Well written, interesting and very unusual. Brilliant descriptions.
Mar 31, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favourites
The Idea of Perfection is the fifth novel by Australian author, Kate Grenville. Set in the dying country town of Karakarook, NSW, pop.1374, the story revolves around the Bent Bridge: the Heritage mob (Karakarook Heritage Museum Committee) believes it can attract tourists; the Shire councillors want to tear this now-dangerous construction down.

Enter divorcee Douglas Cheeseman, engineer from the Lands Office, in town to tear down the old bridge and start construction of the replacement. A self-co
Aug 20, 2009 rated it it was ok
In a few words: an old bridge, a smalltown outback community and lots of social awkwardness.

A slower burner of a book. It took about half way through to get going in terms of the plot, but events were less important in my enjoyment than the development of the characters and the slow immersion into the life of the Australian outback town in which the book was set. the characters were very well drawn, making it almost uncomfortable reading as their self-consciousness and inner turmoils were slowly
Aug 11, 2010 rated it liked it
Shelves: disappointment
In order for the plot of this plodding book to work, Harley must be a sympathetic character. She's not. I also found it hard to believe that a museum in Sydney would allow one of its staff to remain in a backwater for weeks to carry out a job that would have taken a couple of days at most. Felicity and Freddy offer some helpful comic relief, but it wasn't enough to sustain this pointless and overpraised trudge through the outback. The author has chosen to dispense with quotation marks in dialogu ...more
Mar 04, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: book-club
This book, along with Stoner, by john Williams, is probably the best book I have read in 10+ years. I love Grenville's title and her weaving of three individuals working to grow beyond their need for perfection as they visit a small Australian town. The insights and introspection are beautiful, plain and honest, giving you wonderful nuggets of language that Grenville either collected for many years, or is able to just stitch into the dialogue as she thinks of them. At the end of the book, all th ...more
Apr 20, 2015 rated it it was ok
Boy this book was pretty boring. Extremely well written but just goes to show that little something missing ie. a spark of interest means the world.
Mediocre characterisation meant that the main characters were a mystery for most of the book. The only interesting tid bit in the whole novel was completely overshadowed by the terrible culture stereotype. I couldn't even get a grasp of what it was Ms Savage did exactly? Was she an extraordinary craftswoman? No just sewed 'little bits' of fabric toge
Alfreda Samana
Jul 05, 2020 rated it it was amazing
My favourite, Australian outback. A touching story,so loaded with emotion. For those who like action and thrill might even seem boring, but the serene atmosphere, seemingly simple uneventful life fascinated me
Chris Waterford
Dec 14, 2019 rated it it was amazing
The overwhelming sense of this book is of the amazing writing---and the detailed, wonderful descriptions of the thought processes of her flawed characters who are often out of their depth. Superb.
Deedi Brown (DeediReads)
All my reviews live at


I fell so hard for The Idea of Perfection. The plot does move pretty slowly, but that’s because you’re spending the whole time falling in love with the characters and setting (and having your heart broken).

For you if: You read for characters over plot, or you’re interested in reading an example of amazing use of character and setting in writing.


“But out here, she could see people went by different rules. You did
Elisabeth Bibbings
Jun 27, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Isn't it a refreshing change when the hero and heroine aren't perfect?
Harley and Douglas are awkward, gauche, unsure of themselves, knocked about by what life has done to them - like most of us. She's a "greenie", keen to preserve the heritage of the small town where she has been sent from Sydney. He's the engineer, with a passionate interest in concrete (I found myself wondering if he has Asperger syndrome). He's been sent to destroy the ancient, buckled bridge which is a metaphor for their won
Feb 01, 2017 rated it really liked it
3.5 stars. The book was endearing in so many ways, and simultanously achingly painful and beautiful in its exploration of two very ordinary, lonely people. Grenville's prose is sublime, especially her description of the harsh, Australian country as well as its depction of a small, rural town. However, some of the sub-plots were not quite convincing enough to fully engage me, for example, Felicity's story, which is why I could only give it 3.5 stars. ...more
Mary Lou
Aug 12, 2019 rated it really liked it
Douglas and Harley really just lack the social skills everybody else has to some degree. Thrown together in a small Outback town, they like each other, but just can’t get it right.
As I’m falling behind in my reviews I only need to say I loved this; funny, tender and written with such insight, a worthy prize winner.
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Kate Grenville is one of Australia's best-known authors. She's published eight books of fiction and four books about the writing process. Her best-known works are the international best-seller The Secret River, The Idea of Perfection, The Lieutenant and Lilian's Story (details about all Kate Grenville's books are elsewhere on this site). Her novels have won many awards both in Australia and the UK ...more

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