Lately it seems to be taking me an extraordinarily long time to finish reading books and I think this is the least I’ve read in a year. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m writing so much more but it’s sort of disturbing. I’ve even challenged myself to read six classic books between now and the end of the year just to get my reading chops back in shape! But one book I did recently finished and want to recommend is Jeffrey Lent’s A Peculiar Grace although I have to warn you the ending is…while entirely appropriate to the tone of the entire book…frustrating. In fact, my dad recommended this book to me and this is how our conversation went this weekend:
Phone: ring, ring…
Me: Hi, it’s me.
Me: I don’t mean to be rude but is dad home? I have to talk to him.
sounds of mom walking and handing phone to dad.
Mom: It’s your daughter.
Dad: Hey there.
Me: I cannot believe you recommended that book to me! Oh my God. That ending! That ending! Are you fucking kidding me?
My dad (evil laugh): bwah ha ha…I know! I wanted you to read it so I had someone to discuss it with. You know, I think Hewitt gets what he deserves in the end…
and much more conversation about what Hewitt does, or does not do, and how it’s dangerous to mess with the past, and what an amazing writer Lent is.
A Peculiar Grace is one of my favorite kinds of novels, the kind of novel where a bunch of oddballs are thrown together and somehow end up making a life, and I think part of the reason it took me so long to complete is every few pages or so I would put it down to ponder my own novel. I am not exaggerating when I say everything I put into the first ACT of my novel Lent manages to put in the first chapter. It’s a long chapter, and when I told my dad this he told me to worry about that during revision, but it is really difficult to read such a successfully executed novel while working on one’s own. In terms of the sheer mechanics of storytelling, Lent plots things beautifully, keeps his story moving while continuously revealing layers of his characters, and it amazed me…the entire worlds he managed to give his characters without overwriting. I fell completely into Hewitt’s world and what so impressed me with Lent’s characterization is how he created his female characters, especially Emily, Hewitt’s old girlfriend. While Lent lets Hewitt idealize her he shows through her dialogue and her actions that she is quite different than the woman Hewitt remembers, and the difference in the way she is remembered and who she really is is one of the most brilliant things about the novel.
There were, for me, a few irksome moments that seem to occur in any book my dad recommends to me but I think that is more of a father/daughter issue than it is any concern of Lent’s. My dad likes me to read books with really flawed lead male characters, the kind who drink too much and smoke to much and sleep around and live dangerously and then somehow find redemption in nature. My dad LOVES that kind of storyline and sometimes I wonder what he is trying to tell me with all of these recommendations. He and I, we’ve always spoken to each other via the written word, book recommendations and book discussions being generally at the center of what we discuss, I think because we both spend so much time reading and writing. For several years, in college and beyond, I stopped reading these books, these books with what in my head I call the Hemingway fetish, because so many of them seem to make the not so subtle argument that the experience of being a white man is much, much more difficult than most of us could ever grasp, but I’m pretty much over that hissy fit now.
The funny thing is, and I realized this as I was reading A Peculiar Grace, I’ve created one of those men in my novel – in fact, my novel is quite populated by men who are harmed by war, who drink too much and smoke too much and do their women wrong, and my lead male character, Ben, epitomizes all of those characteristics, plus some. In creating the characters in my novel, I absolutely gravitated towards the very kind of stories I sometimes resist. How weird is that? Ah, well. All I can do is keep on writing.
Anyway, I really recommend reading this book, if only so we can all discuss the ending together. But really, even with the…conversation-stirring…ending, there is so much more to this book – characters you will come to know and love, a plot that keeps surprising, lessons in iron work, history, both long ago and more recent, and really stunningly beautiful writing. I will leave you with the paragraph that I happen to believe guides the entire novel, and honestly hints to helping the reader understand the ending. It’s a paragraph that shows not only Lent’s skill as a writer but epitomizes the feel of the book:
Now and then life cracks open like a giant stone to reveal the delicate wisps and webbings that patch together time, sweet fibrous tendrils of the heart’s songs and time itself bends and warps to become unrecognizable as even time but is rendered in snatches and fragments that aren’t to be resolved by clocks or wheels or phases of the moon. Where meadows meet hedgerows and meld into woods and the ancient earth is laughing and heaving in consort once again. This a door not out of the world but deep into it, where humanity and life itself gain or regain the unknowable spectrum within a newborn’s cry or a dying breath.