My sophomore year of high school, I remember talking to an older friend about the senior AP English reading list. She told me about this book called The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, explaining how it was about Jesuit priests in space. From that moment on, I knew I had to be in AP English my senior year. When I got there, when I read that book, it rooted itself into my soul as one of my favorites. Incredibly well-drawn characters, a heart-breaking journey in which two cultures meet for the first time and miscommunication ensues. It amazed me to learn that The Sparrow was Russel’s first book.
So, of course, I got my hands on anything else of hers I could find. I read Children of God. It didn’t tear my heart to shreds, and being of reader!type:masochist, I didn’t love it quite as much as The Sparrow. Still, it made my list of annual rereads. I purchased A Thread of Grace three years ago, along with Vamped: A Novel by David Sosnowski and Sunshine by Robin McKinley, two books also recommended by my previously mentioned older friend. Both books were good, but something about A Thread of Grace daunted me. I’d heard that Russel had decided which characters to kill based on coin tosses, and knew that the book would likely pitch me into a week-long depression. After all, if the characters were half as lovely and incredible as the characters in The Sparrow, in which you at least know who’s going to die right from the get-go, my poor heart wouldn’t stand a chance.
So the book followed me around, unopened, but lovingly placed on the shelf next to The Sparrow and Children of God, for three years. I kept it with me out of a deep respect for the author and the knowledge that, someday, I would be strong enough to read it. Yesterday, I picked it up, flipped it open, and braced myself for the worst of the worst. All of an hour ago, I finished it (hey, winter break, yo). It is, as expected, a heart-breaking book. Even in the hands of a lesser author, of course, any book about World War II is bound to be some sort of depressing. In A Thread of Grace, though, it’s not all of the death and tragedy that really breaks your heart. It’s the compassion that Russel shows for all of her characters. It’s the dozens of singular moments of grace displayed by at-times cranky, irritating, “shithead” humans. It’s the constant voice throughout the book challenging you to withhold your judgment, to simply step into these characters’ shoes, and live as they lived.
There seems to be no shortage of love for Mary Doria Russell. Another glowing review is not my intent with this post. Instead, I want to talk about the feeling I was struck with yesterday, about a third of the way through the book. The realization that, though the events in this book, right from the get-go, are traumatic and horrifying, I was not reacting emotionally. At least, not in the way that I responded emotionally to The Sparrow. At one point I turned to Jon and said, I can’t tell if these characters just aren’t as real as the ones in The Sparrow or if I’ve just grown more cynical since I was 18. I’m not feeling that ache of sorrow in my chest. And I’ll admit, the book did not once make me cry, although it launched a couple hour-ish long sessions of simply laying down and taking stock of the world.
Having finished the book, I think I may have been right about the cynicism thing, although not in exactly the way I was thinking of when the thought first occurred. The characters are intense and quirky, unique from each other and easily identifiable despite the sheer number of them. It’s not the writing that failed to evoke immediate, intense emotional response. I have mellowed out, a lot. My reaction feels like an old, tired sadness, a feeling which I used to treat as an enemy but has, through the years, become a kind of solitary friend. I believe this book would have infuriated me at 18. I would have chosen sides. I would have read, my heart-racing, my muscles taut, with my awareness centered completely on trying to figure out which of the characters were the most right. The end would have sucker-punched me into a moody contemplative silence that overshadowed my days for at least a week.
One of the characters, about midway through the novel, identifies a man he is talking to as someone who has seen war. The man asks, How can you tell? The other man responds, Nothing I say surprises you. It kind of makes me think of one of my bosses at work, who talks candidly about her life. I’ve been thinking a lot lately, about how I don’t know how to respond to being told about personal horror stories. Or rather, I worry that my response is interpreted as unfeeling and cold. I usually don’t say anything. I just nod. I tried, once, to say, ‘I’m so sorry that happened to you,’ but the words felt clunky and wrong. If I could be more candid about some of the things I’ve been through, or had to accept or witness, I wouldn’t want that response. In part, I feel that my boss is so candid with me because my response is so mute. I nod. I listen. I am not shocked. (Could… also be that she’s a little crazy. A lot of crazy people talk to me because I’m quiet, I think, and a little too eager to not offend… that may or may not be the topic of another post.)
I was not shocked by this book. I was shocked by The Sparrow when I first read it. But the emotional intensity of horror has faded as I’ve become more at peace with my own negative emotions and hang-ups and tried to let go of snap judgments. A Thread of Grace is more heart-warming than heart-breaking, more concerned with highlighting the grace of God in people than the awful things that we are capable of, despite the book being about the worst massacre in modern history (in human history?).
I seem to meet a lot of people who consider themselves hardened and made bitter by the world, who will look at me contemptuously should I show the slightest sign of optimism or faith in people. They seem to say, or will say flat out, that I simply haven’t learn how the world “really” works. As if I’m supposed to believe that the One True Lesson in life is that everybody’s out to get you and faith/optimism are childish traits that get weeded out when you grow “wise.” As if the greatest secret in life is that people can be douche nozzles. (People? Douchey? Never! *le gasp*)
Anyway. A Thread of Grace is a beautiful book, almost overloaded with sentimentality (maybe I am a little more cynical) but mellowed by humorous dialogue and believably ornery characters. Am definitely glad I read it. Whether or not it’ll join the annual re-reading list, I haven’t decided. That list probably can’t hold too much more without some cuts.
edit: Why is this post being so ornery about formatting?! -_-