Sunday, January 20, 2008

About Grace (Anthony Doerr)

I’m surprised it took me this long to get around to reading About Grace. Doerr’s story collection The Shell Collector was first-rate, and one of my favorites of the last five years or so. I think the title may have put me off a little bit—with apologies to Doerr, it sounds more than a little like a generic holiday-season romantic comedy, perhaps starring John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale.*

Which, of course, it’s absolutely nothing like, except maybe that there’s snow in it. About Grace is actually about David Winkler, an Anchorage “hydrologist” semi-obsessed with snow crystal formation and occasionally cursed with dreamlike visions of the future. It opens with Winkler on a plane back to America for the first time in twenty-five years, then backtracks to his life in Anchorage, where one of his visions led him into an affair with a married woman, Sandy, and then to run off with her to the Midwest. When they have a daughter (the eponymous Grace), he has a recurring vision of her drowning in a flood despite his attempts to save her. When the flood arrives, he decides that she might live if he does something—anything—except try to save her as he does in the dream. So he flees, eventually ending up in the Caribbean, where he lives the next several decades without knowing whether his daughter is alive or dead.

I wasn’t entirely sold on this book for the first hundred pages or so—the characters seemed, in a way, too much like characters in a literary novel, with passions that seemed too overtly symbolic (David with his water cycle and snow crystals, Sandy’s penchant for constructing enormous metal sculptures in their basement, to say nothing of the name of their daughter). But once it establishes David in the Caribbean, and was able to follow his purgatorial life there and then his later quest to find out whether his daughter is still alive, the book really hits its stride, and ends up in all sorts of surprising and satisfying places.

*Oh, wait, that was Serendipity.

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