Fan Letter Book Review: Study in Perfect

by Alysia Sawchyn

Dear Sarah Gorham,

I am, every so often, accused of being a perfectionist. Though I brushed off the commentary for a time—it’s easy to point in my family tree to leaves and even entire branches who are real perfectionists—the older I get, the more I realize it’s true. Perhaps it’s increased self-awareness, perhaps it’s an increase in responsibilities whose sum total of efforts required for perfection in their execution is beyond my physical capabilities. This is to say that I am now a recovering perfectionist.

This essay collection, diverse in both content and structure, reminds the reader that perfection, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Depending on who’s doing the defining, perfection’s meaning ranges from “right proportions and a harmonious arrangement of parts” to “the potential for development.” A spectrum of perfection.

And so fittingly, contained within Study of Perfect are houses that are perfect for their age—“Our new house celebrates the gray areas, dissolves categories, subverts traditional outlines”—marriages that are perfect in their strife—“Over the years adversity continued on and off, tearing, tempering”—mushrooms that are perfect in their toxic properties—“ghost in a veil, destroying angel.”

Through this collection, readers learn botany, pottery, alcoholism, the universal shape of fear, sentimentality. These essays suggest that perfection is elusive and also mutable. As the narrative voice pivots around perfection like a jeweler showing off a diamond’s facets, this particular reader starts to question her own definitions of perfect, her perfectionism, which feels like chronic dissatisfaction manifest into a politely packaged term, just another “ism.”

Ms. Gorham, does perfection exists in all things, a quiet trait that lays dormant until called upon? Could I choose it? Is it enough to stop, to lay down arms against the onslaught of life’s trivialities and say, “This is enough, this is perfect”? I hear you saying, “Yes.”

With gratitude,


 … return to Issue 9.3 Table of Contents.