I had never heard of author Anthony Doerr until I was seduced by his magnificent Pulitzer Prize winning novel All the Light We Cannot See. So when I happened upon a worn copy of his earlier novel About Grace at a used bookstore I had to snatch it up and dive in at my first opportunity. Remarkably, while Doerr has written a number of short stories, this is his only previous novel and it was published a full decade before All the Light We Cannot See. It is surprising that a first novel of such style and complexity did not attract far more attention, for it certainly earned it. I assiduously avoid spoilers in my fiction reviews, but that is all but impossible for About Grace, so if you want to avoid these stop reading now and buy the book. For the rest: read on!
About Grace is comprised of three distinct parts. After a prologue chapter that introduces the main character as a fifty-nine year old, the essence of the novel opens decades earlier as protagonist David Winkler, a colorless loner living in Anchorage who is a trained hydrologist – the science of water – dreams of a girl dropping a magazine in a shop and then subsequently happens into that scene in real life. He relentlessly pursues that girl – a bank teller trapped in a childless, uninspiring marriage – until he surprisingly wins Sandy away from her banker husband Herman and they suddenly flee to Ohio, where he goes to work as a meteorologist and a pregnant Sandy quietly pursues a welding hobby that David has encouraged. In the course of the narrative, the reader learns that David’s dream that anticipates his encounter with Sandy is not a singular experience. He has had strikingly prescient dreams before, with sometimes horrific results, including one in his childhood that predicted a man being struck by a bus, which he later witnessed. It does not happen frequently, but sometimes David really can predict the future through his dreams, and the next incidence serves as the pivot point for the rest of the novel.
David dreams that their new infant daughter Grace is caught up in a flood; in the dream sequence David attempts to save Grace, but in the course of his actions instead inadvertently ensures that she is drowned. When an actual flood ensues, David removes his family to a motel for safety, but is so haunted by his foresight and the agony of Grace’s impending doom that in a desperate attempt to protect her from his flawed foretold interference he takes flight to destinations unknown, finally landing up penniless and disoriented on the Caribbean isle of St. Vincent – as part two of the novel is engaged – where he is sheltered by a colorful family of Chilean refugees. Later, David desperately seeks to learn the fate of his daughter. Sandy appears to have returned to her ex-husband and angered at his abandonment wants nothing to do with David. The fate of Grace remains undisclosed and thus unknown.
Here the pace of the novel slows considerably. David finds work as a laborer for a hotel and bonds with Naaliyah, the young daughter of the family that takes him in. In some significant ways, Naaliyah serves as a substitute for Grace as David nurtures her and encourages her curiosity and her intellect in a way her own father cannot. Some two decades slip by uneventfully and the narrative drags to some degree. Then David is again visited by frightening dreams, this time of the now fully grown Naaliyah drowning in a boating accident. His intervention and its result pave the way for part three of the novel, as David takes his leave from the tropics and returns to the states – and finally to Alaska – seeking to determine once and for all the fate of Grace and his own existential meaning in the random events of his troubled life.
Throughout the story, the reader may grow exasperated with David’s character. He is, after all, a frustratingly complacent individual frequently tossed upon the waves of the sea of life, often without the ambition to chart a course or even steady himself adequately to avoid going under. In many ways, he is somewhat reminiscent of the stubbornly passive male protagonist of a Murakami novel, who is surprised to have found that his wife has left him even while yet too unmotivated to unravel the cause for the break. Again and again, David takes the long way around to get the answers he craves, writing letters instead of calling, hitchhiking instead of flying, running in place rather than seizing the day. Yet, there is an unmistakable beauty to the prose in this work and an attractive metaphorical element to the main character and his quest that finally become so irresistible that even the weaknesses of the novel are shunted aside as the epic nature of both David’s questions and the tantalizing potential answers fully consume the reader’s interest. Along the way – as in All the Light We Cannot See – there is a good deal of science to lend strength to the novel’s framework, in this case hydrology and meteorology, as well as the study of entomology in an arctic environment, and the formation of snowflake crystals. Hydrology is not incidental, by the way; water, both real and allegorical, could be said to be the real main character in this multi-layered tale. When all is said and done, both the conclusion of the book and the route to reach the finish line turn out to be rewarding. While there are indeed moments however brief in these pages that produce yawns the author might not have intended, perseverance pays off. About Grace is indeed a fine novel and I would, warts and all, recommend it without hesitation.