Perfect Agreement

Title: Perfect Agreement
Published by: Penguin Putnam (Berkley Books)
Release Date: October 1998
Pages: 288
ISBN13: 978-0425166284
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National Bestseller

Selected as one of the Ten Best Books of the Year by

Selected as one of the Best Books of the Year by Newsday

The story of Perfect Agreement

This is, I hope, a story about how we learn to love our lives. It is a comic novel about a man who wishes his lover, friends, and families would behave according to the reliable rules of grammar, instead of acting like exceptions.

Mark Sternum, the narrator, teaches grammar and spelling at Boston’s McClintock College—“An odd job for a college professor,” he is told, “but no one else seems to be doing it.” When he flunks an African-American student on the college’s basic skills test, she accuses him of “prejudism” and he is fired—and his case makes national headlines.

In the midst of this mess, his lover decides to move out of town, an anonymous supporter emails him daily advice, and his father, a photographer famous for his pictures of the Shaker communities that once thrived in America, turns up for a visit—most surprising, as Mark had long believed his father was dead.

Mark’s father wheedles his way into his son’s life with stories of a nineteenth-century Shaker woman, Sister Celia, and her encounters with the Negro Jesus. And he wakes up something in Mark—a longing to escape the solitude of certainty. Mark is reluctantly drawn into the maddening joy of engagement, the peculiar but enduring compensations of work, friendship, and genuine community.

Read an excerpt


“Splendid! Downing’s take on academia is so witty and full of such dispiriting accuracy, that it could at first be easy to mistake his novel for a high-end campus satire . . . but Perfect Agreement is much, much more. This may be the first novel in which the love story is counterpointed by a discussion of sentence mechanics, but that doesn’t make it any less moving. Downing has filled his book with so much intelligence and beauty that it can modify your life, like a loved one. And in the realm of art, it doesn’t get any more perfect than that.”
Washington Post Book World

“Beautifully and economically written, and very funny.”
—Linda Wertheimer, National Public Radio

“Downing is better at writing about the Shakers than Hawthorne or Melville . . . The feeling for the community and its members rings true.”
New York Times Book Review

“As artfully and solidly constructed as a Shaker table . . . Exquisite.”

“Cleverly constructed and thoroughly engaging.”
—San Francisco Chronicle

“Certainly no one other than Downing has ever thought to include tips on spelling, diction, and grammar in a novel. They are delivered with a wit that suggests that novelist Downing does not take them as seriously as his Professor Sternum.”
—Boston Globe

“A witty, moving, and intelligent meditation on the issues of community and justice. . . Like Toni Morrison, Downing turns to the past, giving voice to stories that have not been told and makes an eloquent plea for compassion and patience.”
—Lexington Herald-Ledger

“A novel of compassion and wit. In this generous, inventive novel, Michael Downing flawlessly interweaves Mark Sternum's travails in academe with a Shaker mystery, a mystery that as it unfolds helps Mark realize what is missing in his own life - surprising him with unexpected answers.”
Publishers Weekly starred review