Perfect Agreement by Michael Downing ReviewBerkley, October 1998.
Paperback, 538 pages.
Perfect Agreement by Michael Downing is a novel constructed in a unique form. Michael Downing tells the story of a young instructor in rhetoric who has brought much trouble down on his college by adhering steadfastly to the standards set up by his institution. This action has resulted in a furor over the fact that his college has dismissed him largely because the student that he has not passed is a young black woman who cannot spell the English language well enough to pass a standardized test. As we are plunged into the confused and frustrated thoughts of the young man who clearly has not even been tempted to be politically correct, we are caught up in his anguish as he tries to sort out political realities, emotional truth and the supposed intellectual freedom of academic life. At the end of each episode, we are treated to a delightfully witty explanation of the underlying reasoning that is the underpinning of some of the most perplexing intricacies of English syntax and rules of spelling.
When we first meet Mark Sternum, he reminds us of all the young academics we have known in all the colleges we have attended. Mr. Downing brings us back to the campus, its faculty politics, the genteel poverty of those still seeking tenure, and the strange actions of administrators who are put into the impossible role of building a bridge between the academics and the world outside. As we get to know Mark Sternum better, we are drawn into the way that he is trying to reconcile his need for structure and its attendant peace of mind with the reality of his own dysfunctional family. Mark Sternum has the daunting task of sorting out his feelings about why his own father had abandoned the family and left to go and live with the Shaker community. His fascination with the structure of the lives of the Shakers parallels his delight with the structure of the English language.
Perfect Agreement is a book so well written and so full of insight, gentleness and a steadfast search for the truth that you will enjoy it more every time you pick it up. Mark Sternum will become an intelligent friend whose company you will enjoy throughout the book. I find myself going back to read not only the narrative, but to delight in the wittily chosen examples that explain the pitfalls that await those of us who write English. This book is not about the Shakers as much as it is about finding one's way and valuing, but not judging, our friends and loves who go through life with us.
--Sarah Reaves White
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