After penning nine novels, Penelope Stokes knows how to craft an interesting story, and she raises the bar a bit higher for herself in CIRCLE OF GRACE.
Four mismatched college classmates craft an unlikely alliance in this tale, then drift apart over the next few decades, connected only by their "circle journal," passed around by mail for each woman to update the others on how her life unfolds. However, most of the women can't resist embellishing their accomplishments, hiding important life events, or brushing aside their failures, so the entries in the circle journal are mostly a charade.
Grace Benedict (whose name has several interesting connotations) had thought of the foursome as "the Four Corners" or "the Compass Points" in college because of their diversity of perspectives when challenged in a philosophy course to answer the question, "What is truth?" The heart of Stokes's novel lies in the answer to this question.
Liz Chandler, a dyed-in-the-wool atheist who, as a student, believed love was overrated, goes on to find true love with a surprising person --- but she isn't sure she is ready to be honest with her old friends about her new life. Amanda, or "Lovey," is the vacuous, agnostic blonde Southern cheerleader whose dream marriage to football player Bo Tennyson has slipped away over the years into an expensive, polished façade. But can she confront Bo with the truth about their relationship? Tess Riley, the daughter of an Episcopal bishop, has become a successful writer with two Newbery Medals and three Horn Book Awards. But she keeps the truth about her identity a secret.
And Grace, the moral compass and "truth teller" of the foursome, believed in college that "the truth will set you free…truth enables us to become the people we were created to be." But thirty years later, Grace is perhaps the worst at coming clean, spinning a fantasy life in the circle journal for her friends that bear no relationship to reality. Grace has been burned in the "truth telling" department before. Her parents' marriage had a dark side that she discovered after her father's death. It was then that truth ceased to be an abstract concept for Grace. As Stokes beautifully writes, truth then "had a color, a taste, a smell. A dark red hellish light, a bitter burn like acid on her tongue, a scent of smoke and ash and the rotting remains of half-cremated dreams." Her mother tells her, "We always think we want the truth, Grace. But the truth isn't always pleasant or noble, and it's certainly not painless."
Now, diagnosed with a terminal illness and long past believing her college credo that "the truth will set you free," Grace must decide if she will finish life the same way she has lived it, or be willing to be painfully honest with her friends about her own deceptions and her need for a relationship.
Readers who dislike their authors deviating from what they have come to expect will enjoy CIRCLE OF GRACE, which echoes THE BLUE BOTTLE CLUB in its object motif and follows some familiar Stokes formulas. In this sense, CIRCLE OF GRACE is like settling in for a conversation with an old friend. However, more conservative Stokes fans will discover that the author has taken some risks in this novel: allowing her characters to use some profanity, and letting one of the friends "come out of the closet." What is most unmistakable about this novel is how Stokes's writing, always proficient, sparkles in places, and she proves she knows how to turn some lovely phrases ("Liz's questions, along with so many of her own, hung out there like loose threads on a badly-woven sweater. Pull one, and everything might unravel.").
This novel, with its lovely writing and themes of truth, loss, friendship and redemption, will provide an absorbing story for readers of faith fiction.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on November 13, 2011