“Ordinary Grace” by William Kent Krueger

Genre:  Literary Fiction /Murder MysteryOrdinary Grace
Publisher: Atria
Pub. Date:  Oct. 19, 2012

“The sky had changed.  The gray sky deepened to the color of charcoal and the clouds had begun to boil” is an example of the gorgeous prose in this gem of a novel.   “Ordinary Grace” is marketed as a murder mystery.  It reads much more like a touching coming-of-age story set in a small Minnesota town where a murder takes place.  The book was published in 2012. It later went on to win the Edgar Award for Best Novel in 2014.  I am not sure how I came across this novel but I am very glad that I did.  “Grace” sends readers back in time to 1961 when the Minnesota Twins were playing their debut season, JFK was the new young president and life in a small town included a soda fountain, barbershop, and church. In the prologue, you will learn “It was a summer in which death, in visitation, assumed many forms.  Accident.  Nature.  Suicide.  Murder.”  Rather than focusing on the whodunit, “Grace” tells the story of how the deaths affect the town’s residents.

Frank is the 13-year-old narrator.  He is a kid who has a tendency to get into trouble.  His voice is charming.  He describes his father as “a man with a son who stuttered and another probably on his way to becoming a juvenile delinquent.”  His father is the local Methodist minister.  Post-traumatic stress is delicately woven into the story.  Before his dad left for WWII, he was on his way to being a hotshot lawyer. His mother resents her husband’s change of career. She is not a believer in God, which makes for good tension in the plot.  His siblings are a Juilliard-bound teenage sister and his sweet younger brother who is bullied for having a stutter. There are pages filled with other colorful, nice and not-so-nice townspeople.  All are written with in-depth character development.  There are similarities to Stephen King’s novella, “The Body,” which later became the movie, “The Stand.”  “Grace” like “Body” is a dark read at times that can be heartbreaking but overall its message is optimistic.

Without being preachy (pun intended), the author managed to write a book filled with life lessons. At the end of the tale, Frank thinks, “Loss, once it’s become a certainty, is like a rock you hold in your hand. It has weight and dimension and texture. It’s solid and can be assessed and dealt with.”  Even though the family goes through terrible experiences, his brother says, “The miracle is this: that you will rise in the morning and be able to see again the startling beauty of the day.”Simply said, “Grace” is a story of when bad things happen to good people and how they overcome their pain.  Krueger’s characters go through a wide range of believable and conflicting emotions.  You will laugh and cry along with them. The author’s skill in building tension, drama, and acceptance will leave the reader with a heartwarming glow.

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“Olive, Again” by Elizabeth Strout

Genre:  Literary FictionOlive
Publisher:  Random House
Publication Date:  October 15, 2019

I read Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “Olive Kitteridge,” when it was published in 2008.   I have been reading the author’s work ever since.   Needless to say, I was delighted when I received an Advance Review Copy (ARC) of “Olive, Again.”  As in the original novel, the sequel’s chapters read as interlinked short stories with recurring local characters in the same small town of Maine.  Once again, in some way or another, Olive’s presence is always felt, even if she is not in the scene.   In this follow up-book, Strout proves that she still is a powerful storyteller, especially when concentrating on the subtle complexities of human relationships.  In “Again,” Olive is still an ornery and yet a loveable character.  Now we follow her as she grows old, navigating the changes in her life.

The novel begins with “Arrested,” which takes place right after the first novel ends.  The 74-year-old widower, Jack, is courting 73-year-old Olive.  Strout captures the surprise and depression one feels when they realize that they are now part of the invisible population of the elderly—alone and unseen.  Strout captures the embarrassing details of the aging body as well. She writes this so well, you might find yourself looking down at the size of your own stomach.  You will feel the delight of when a widow and widower find each other and, realize that they are no longer alone.  You will also laugh out loud when reading how the couple comes to wonder that if maybe loneliness has its advantages.

“Motherless Child” is a story about Olive and her son, Christopher, who was getting married in one of the stories in Kitteridge.”  Here he is married and has children and stepchildren of his own.   We follow his family when they come to visit.    Olive is excited to see her son and grandchildren.  She is proud of herself when she thinks to make the kids peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  The problem is that now Christopher and his family live in NYC and are accustomed to NYC living.  They have become more sophisticated, or as Olive feels downright uppity.  They are appalled with the measly sandwiches.   Christopher and his wife whisper to each other, not aware that Olive can hear them, why didn’t she think of finer foods for their visit.  Why did she just knit a scarf and not buy the grandkids proper gifts?   Olive feels like a failure.  The visit goes from bad to worse when she informs her son that his father, Henry, has been gone for years now and that she plans to get married again to Jack.  The author shows us how class and stubbornness can change family dynamics, leaving the reader feeling very sad for the protagonist.

“Labor” is wickedly funny.  Olive goes to a baby shower.  Never known for her patience, she keeps wondering how long she’ll have to sit there.  The reader can feel what she must be thinking:  In her day, no one had such events.   When having a baby, you received your family and friends’ hand-me-downs.  Period.   She is bored out of her mind. (Admit it, if you have ever been to a baby shower it can get tedious fast).   In her typical quirky, direct manner she says all the wrong things.  But when another guest, who is pregnant herself, goes into labor, it is Olive who delivers the baby.  She is no longer bored.  It may not be the most believable tale. Still, it is one of my favorites in the book.  Stout ensures that her readers remember that bad can go to good in a heartbeat.

All of the chapters/tales in the novel are written with humor and compassion.  The author has a gift for zooming in on ordinary moments in the lives of ordinary people, which make you think about your own ordinary life.  But, like Olive, your life is not ordinary simply because it is your own.  Stout has never failed to make me reflect on how my own years—good and bad—have played out.  Nor, has she ever failed to entertain me.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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