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Revisiting the Shaker Community in Michael Downing’s “Perfect Agreement”

Category: Art & Culture,Books

This week Rebecca Dinerstein writes about Michael Downing’s “Still in Love,” the belated sequel to the novel “Perfect Agreement,” which David Willis McCullough reviewed for the Book Review in 1997.

The major trial-balloon subplot — and by far the most successful — is a long historical flashback interwoven with the contemporary goings-on. Here we are taken to a Shaker settlement in Kentucky and a young girl who sees a dark-skinned man that the community wants to believe is a mystical vision of a black Jesus. Downing is better at writing about Shakers than Hawthorne or Melville, who had them for neighbors. (Perhaps that’s the reason.) The setting is just right. The feeling for the community and its members rings true, especially in small details like the sweeping of a walk, which an outsider sees as a chore and the Shaker sweeper as an act of worship. …

Because of the sampler structure of “Perfect Agreement,” the reader is left in the curious position of choosing sides with one part of the novel against another. The comedy is fun, but it doesn’t last long. The spelling rules are useful, but this is, after all, a novel, not a textbook. … But the Shaker material is first-rate. And the title is just right. The book is about perfect agreements — or at least the desire for them — in grammar, in domestic life, in work, in education and in utopian theology (which may not be very different from everyday theology).


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