Much in Grace Abounding is familiar from Maureen Howard’s earlier books, both fictional and autobiographical. There is the family of ex-Catholics in Connecticut, where certainties of any kind—whether false or true—are harder to come by than in New York, the contrasting culture, where attitudes are a survival tactic. The family members themselves have parallels in past books: the mother, who is sensitive, self-dramatizing, and—although successfully or potentially professional—resistant to acknowledging her own competence, attracted more to the mysteries of memory and imagination than to the clearer demands of simple ambition; the father figure, usually a lawyer, orderly and out of reach; the grandmother, who is that “doomed” creature, a “lady”; a brother, vital and irresistible, but lost, in this case to grotesque mid-life change; and the child, beloved, elusive, and disappointing.
Familiar also is Maureen Howard’s method: the many fragments, “stories within stories,” which combine more than connect to tell the whole tale. The point of view, usually third-person but occasionally first, shifts from character to character, allowing each one at least a moment at the center, so that none is “minor.”
Despite the familiar elements, however, Grace Abounding is full of surprises. It is a more concentrated work than any of Howard’s previous books, and in its rendering of the characters a gentler and more convincing one.
Especially in her most recent books—Before My Time and Facts of Life, an autobiography—Howard seemed so intent on avoiding sentimentality and predictability that her narrative often became tense, and her characters sometimes fell victim; there was something disagreeable about them. While there is no sentimentality or predictability in the new novel, neither does one feel the strain of their exclusion. The characters, with their tragic and comic weaknesses, are shamelessly likable but nonetheless mysterious, unsettling, and original.
The novel also has a stronger plot: not the “exposition, character development, psychological motivation,” and “rickety” suspense that Howard listed as the “bald techniques of cheap fiction” in Facts of Life, but an accumulation of startling events, changes, and discoveries that arouse curiosity. While the novel entices us to wonder what really happened, and what will happen, and why, it does not invite us to predict or even to want any answers. The events in the novel are not controlled by cause and effect or the comfort of understanding, but create the pattern of a life through mistakes and misunderstandings.
Maude Dowd is mistaken about almost everything. In the first and best section of the book, she is a forty-three-year-old widow living with her daughter in Shrewsbury, Connecticut (the year is 1971). Her initial reaction to the death of her husband—a lawyer whom she lost sexually and emotionally long before he died—had been an energetic spree of redecoration, making ready for a new life that didn’t come. She has settled almost comfortably into a routine of lassitude and self-delusion. Three times a week she drives to visit her aged and dotty mother, a …