The awkward bridge from loneliness to romance

These Australians are too embarrassed to say hello. Can they find love?

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. They're both awkward, middle-aged people baffled by where to put their hands. Douglas is so self-conscious about the size of his ears that they turn red. "He'd grown a mustache as a kind of diversionary tactic." Harley struggles to maintain a smile that doesn't highlight her fang-like incisors.

Both come from families of famous people who put their own shortcomings in high relief. They're mystified by the intricacies of small talk, envying the pleasantries that others seem to have learned early in life. "He had been known to laugh long before the punch-line, out of sheer anxiety." Harley aims for lively but comes off sounding accusatory.

They must get together, of course, but Grenville delays their courtship with exquisite timing. Both arrive on the same week in Karakarook, New South Wales, a village evaporating into ghost-town status. "You could not window-shop convincingly in Karakarook," Grenville writes, "unless you were in the market for dead flies." Harley has come to help the remaining 1,374 citizens build a heritage museum to attract tourists. Douglas has been sent to demolish the town's only real attraction, the dilapidated Bent Bridge. They spot one another immediately Â- they're often the only things moving on Main Street Â- but both are determined not to increase their already high diet of embarrassment.

Though she makes them the subject of great comedy, Grenville regards these sweet losers with incredible patience. Both have endured enough heartache to make them pessimistic about their romantic prospects. Douglas has already bored a wife into divorce with his enthusiasm for concrete.

Harley, meanwhile, won't even acknowledge the mangy dog that follows her around town (not Doug, the other mangy dog). "Sometimes it was a little lonely," she admits, "but it was safe." A doctor has warned her to exercise her weak heart, but she stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the obvious implications of that metaphor. She's already run through three husbands and labors under the burden that she drove the last one to suicide. She knows that "she was not adorable. She was not even a particularly nice person. She was not generous or unselfish. She was not a sunny soul. She was not especially talented or creative, except in a limited way. She had certainly never been pretty, much less beautiful."

Grenville winces and winks through her portrayal of these people. Despite her dry sense of humor, she demonstrates a teenager's sensibility for self-consciousness Â- an ear for every bungled introduction and an eye for every toppled chair. Her hero and heroine stumble through a minefield of comic embarrassments that detonate with almost every step. At their first meeting, Doug finds himself attacked by a herd of cattle. At their second meeting, Harley vomits. These lovers aren't so much star-crossed as tar-crossed.

While Doug plans to demolish the Bent Bridge and Harley plans to save it, Grenville turns her witty eye to the tortured ruminations of Felicity Porcelline, a satirical portrayal as pitch-perfect as anything by Charles Dickens or Evelyn Waugh. Mrs. Porcelline lives in a world tightly strung along her regulations for proper skin care and housekeeping. She rations the number of wrinkle-forming smiles she allows herself each evening. She fantasizes about eating off her spotless kitchen floor.

In fact, her fantasies are the only things she can't smooth and sterilize. To her horror, she's inexorably attracted to Mr. Chang, the inscrutable Chinese butcher, who has the nerve to act just like a normal person "as if he did not realize that being Chinese was unusual." Terrified by "their fascination for white women," Mrs. Porcelline worries that "if you happened to find yourself with him in the dark for any reason, you would never know he was Chinese." Torn between her carefully covered racism and her ferociously repressed desire, poor Mrs. Porcelline is subject to a constant barrage of erotic assaults on her pristine world. Each day's trip to the meat counter Â- sometimes two! Â- unleashes a ravenous pack of Freudian slips and displaced anxieties.

"The Idea of Perfection" is perfectly conceived, an irresistible comedy of manners that catches the agony of chronic awkwardness with great tenderness. The Bent Bridge spans a treacherous gully in the heart, but Grenville is a trustworthy engineer who understands the quirky geometry of love.

• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor, charlesr@csps.com.

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