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 fulfillment of duty which only she—certainly not her mother—appreciates. At home, she administers token maternal gestures to her daughter, who in fact is mothering her, while she nurtures an obsession with two old spinsters who live next door, about whom she knows little, understands less, and invents much, all of it wrong. She always keeps a “good” book within arm’s reach but reaches for trash, which she forgets even before she puts it down.
And she fantasizes. Her energy, which is considerable, and her anger go into fantasies which are pornographic in their lust for humiliation, victimization. She invents gun-stroking state troopers and acne-damaged teenagers who cut her lips with their braces and then discard her. Her final fantasy is the seduction of Paul Deems, an antique-store owner married to a wheelchair-ridden espouser of liberal Catholic causes. Maude, wrong as usual, believes Paul to be saintly in his role of dutiful husband, and—in a fantasy of mutual victimization—has him taking her money while she takes his virtue. When the fantasy is acted out, it becomes only a drab suburban love affair.
Yet Maude is neither pitiable nor contemptible. There is a comic edge to both her fantasies and her affair that saves her. Rather than the products of neurosis or stupidity, they seem an odd counterpoint to the evening news, where brutality is rendered insipid by an “ambitious parrot” (as Maude’s daughter describes the anchorwoman) in a “beautiful dress and beads,” or where diplomacy centers on a ping-pong table. Nothing in Maude’s world seems quite real, so, without impediment, she stubbornly keeps on making mistakes. Her stubbornness is almost admirable.
When we encounter Maude in the second section of the novel, she is a changed woman. She is over fifty now and has a new husband, a new name (Maude Lasser), a new home (in New York), a new profession as a child psychologist, and a new obsession with efficiency and purpose. Torpor and aimlessness have been supplanted by schedule and punctuality—by a professionalism that is, again, almost admirable.
At first the change strains one’s credibility, and Maude Lasser hardly seems the same woman as Maude Dowd. We eventually learn the events that preceded the change: the death of Maude’s mother, the disappearance of Paul Deems, and the discovery of the talent of Maude’s daughter as a singer—which prompts a move to New York for voice lessons and provides an occasion for Maude, with naïve earnestness, to attend graduate school and become a would-be culture maven. But these events are not causes, and, even if the “psychological motivation” had been more explicitly mapped out for us, it would still be less significant in making the change credible than the fact that Maude’s new life is really a refracted image of her old life. It is a matter of redirected energy. A big improvement, certainly, but not a miraculous success story or exemplum of women’s liberation.
The miracle is not that Maude has changed but that, in a basic and mysterious way, she has not changed; her circumstances have. She still keeps on making mistakes—about her patients, her family, herself. The stakes are higher, because she now operates in the public world, yet she is no more responsible for the suicide of one of her young patients than she was for the fate of Paul Deems (whom she misread more totally than she ever finds out). In neither the private nor the public world can one ever understand motives, know causes, predict effects, or control events; to keep discovering this, as Maude does, and then to keep going is a worthy accomplishment.
Near the end of the book, Maude indulges in self-pity and anger after she has a minor eye operation, and exerts the same hysterical energy she had previously lavished on her fantasies. Among her grievances is her daughter:
With no further provocation, I started on Elizabeth as I tottered to the bedroom with the mail and my magazine. Ungrateful girl. I had made a world for her. The costly years of training: her scales and noisy exercises—maddening while I worked over my courses for Columbia, preparing myself for life. It was not painless, discovering all the years I had been passive, duped. The muck that rose to the surface, warped and disfigured, when I first came to this city, Cruel, incriminating fragments of the past. At my expense. While the great waste went on around me—her Steinway, Italian lessons, diction, fencing, dance. I remembered the outrageous price of her georgette recital gown. In this version I had sold my house for her. Left a warmhearted circle of friends. On Seventy-sixth Street I had waited up for my daughter at night, long after the heat went off, long after the streets were safe, patiently reading on—the cases of advanced narcissism, hysteria and sexual dysfunction—until her key turned in the latch. Supper for her on the stove at midnight. Oh, I was glad to be of any use.
One cliché after another. But the comic self-awareness of “in this version” is her salvation, her abounding grace—not the grace that was available to John Bunyan in Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, but still, for now, grace enough.
I have made Maude seem much simpler than she is, for she does indeed exist in many versions. The other characters in the novel have wildly disparate impressions of her, and I suspect that readers will too. And besides, her story is but one among many. She is part of a large cast of characters who range from the mundane to the grotesque: Elizabeth, for example, Maude’s sullen daughter who turns opera singer and then housewife (allowing Maude the luxury of a mother’s disappointment); Elizabeth’s husband Gus, a young lawyer building his career on preventing a corporate case from coming to trial; Maude’s husband Gilbert, whose profession is solving the problems of the world; Gilbert’s son Teddy, a Jew turned Episcopal minister who fawns on the rich, and the Le Doux sisters, Maude’s reclusive neighbors in Connecticut who, in their Gothic subplot, are the characters least affected by the remnants of Christianity or echoes of lost faith, by the ambivalence or compromise, that tease and torment the others.
All the characters have a mysterious and complex integrity. By writing about them on their own terms—as they stumble and collide with one another and live through the accidents, illusions, deceits, and misunderstandings of their lives—Maureen Howard is able to make them surprising and more interesting than we would ever expect: a mark of first-rate fiction.
December 2, 1982