It doesn’t hurt to occasionally make forays into fiction that is outside of one’s genre comfort zone, so to speak. Today I am treading into general fiction, perhaps into that sub-genre that does not always dare speak its name --- women’s fiction --- and reading T. Greenwood’s latest novel. A half-century ago, I would have been the subject of taunting for trying such a thing, or at worst (like young Trevor in the book) subjected to bullying. At this stage in my life, the former does not bother me, and as for the latter, I have acquired a skill set that handles that type of behavior quite quickly and effectively. Accordingly, I am here to report that GRACE, for all its domestic backdrop, is suspenseful, addicting, and one of those rare books that you will sacrifice sleep to finish and be glad for it, regardless of your genre of choice.
"I am here to report that GRACE, for all its domestic backdrop, is suspenseful, addicting, and one of those rare books that you will sacrifice sleep to finish and be glad for it, regardless of your genre of choice."
GRACE takes place in rural New England; its subjects are the working class, those who make do with a few extras and a helping of downsized expectations, and for whom a few unexpected setbacks can spell chilling disaster. So it is with the Kennedys (no, not those Kennedys), whose situation is unraveling in slow motion with all-but-certain bad results. We know this from the first pages of the book, which begins on a winter night with a chilling, horrifying tableau, and then goes back in time to show how things came to reach the state of affairs so prematurely revealed.
Kurt, husband and father, manages an almost successful junkyard that he inherited from his dad but that is slowly falling into failure due to a number of factors, including online retail sites. The family bills are divided into past due --- 30, 60 and 90 days --- and the adjustable rate mortgage that looked so attractive a few years ago on their now upside-down house is about to become a monster twice the monthly size of what it was.
Elsbeth, wife and mother, has been a beautician at the local salon ever since she was 17, and shortly after she found Kurt discovered that she was heavy with child. She is troubled by the fact that she struggles to love Trevor, her firstborn son, but has no difficulty feeling a wholehearted and genuine affection for her much younger daughter, Gracy. Elsbeth has other problems, however, including an impulsive kleptomania that she limits to small items from the local Walgreens, and a near constant and not wholly unreasonable desire for a bit more than the family can afford at any given point.
Trevor, whose conception occasioned the marriage of Kurt and Elsbeth, is on the cusp of adolescence. He is uncomfortable in his 13-year-old body, which is always hungry and a target for a couple of school bullies, who put him in situations where he is constantly blamed for the outcome by school authorities. His one solace is a camera given to him by his art teacher, a 16-millimeter that requires film to be developed. It is his pictures that bring Crystal inadvertently into the lives of the Kennedys. Crystal, a clerk at the Walgreens where Elsbeth trades and shoplifts, slowly begins to realize what is happening in the family’s world when Elsbeth brings Trevor’s film to the store for developing. Shel is aware of Elsbeth’s love of the five-fingered discount, but turns a blind eye to it while she is caught up in her own tragic and heartbreaking situation.
All of these elements are inter-related, and slowly, painfully and explosively converge. Some elements can be seen coming down the road as clearly as an old Chevrolet with a cracked head gasket, headed for Kurt’s junkyard. Others, like Elsbeth’s shoplifting, impact indirectly but just as surely. By the end of the novel, much has changed, and yet there is a lot that cannot be.
What is striking about GRACE is the manner in which Greenwood quietly but effectively constructs and addresses common situations that affect all of us at one point or another to varying degrees throughout our lives. Everyone can empathize with Kurt, who consistently finds that too often he has too much month left at the end of the money. Elsbeth’s penchant for shoplifting, and the manner in which she justifies it in her own mind, is a trait shared by far more people than one might expect. And Trevor? Does anyone reading this really want to go back to adolescence? Don’t raise your hands all at once! Greenwood takes these commonalities, and with a twist here and a realistic turn of events there, turns them into a recipe for tragedy, one that can only be avoided by an unexpected element.
Part suspense, part romance, and all real-world, GRACE is a thoughtful and intriguing slice-of-life work that you will not soon forget.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on April 6, 2012