Ordinary Grace, by William Kent Krueger

Ordinary Grace

“All the dying that summer began with the death of a child, a boy with golden hair and thick glasses….” And with this first line, the tone is set for Ordinary Grace, a quiet coming-of-age novel set in small-town Minnesota in the 1960s.

Frank Drum is just thirteen years old when the serene town of New Bremen is disrupted by a series of disturbing, deadly events, one of which causes Frank’s world to crack. With his sweet, stuttering younger brother Jake as his shadow, Frank pokes and prods the dark corners of the town, eavesdropping and exploring, trying to make sense of what has happened.

Frank’s father is the town pastor. Though he was originally on the path to become a lawyer, his searing World War II experiences diverted him to the ministry. Frank’s mother, who thought she was marrying a lawyer, is uncomfortable as the pastor’s wife and resentful of his reliance on faith. This novel is as much about the rifts in this marriage as it is about the disturbances in the town. Secrets are uncovered, faith is tested, grief must be dealt with. But ordinary grace proves to be this family’s salvation, and that grace finds its voice in surprising ways.

An Edgar Award-winning novel, Ordinary Grace is less a mystery book than a portrait of a family and a town in crisis. Frank is a boy who is always on the move, one who will climb out of the bedroom window in the middle of the night without hesitation if it will bring him answers. Jake might doubt his brother’s methods, but he’s by Frank’s side through thick and thin. They are a resilient pair with secrets of their own.

This nostalgic, moving novel manages to be simultaneously sad and uplifting. Frank is telling the story forty years later, with the perspective of time—a wise choice by the author, as it allows the adult’s more mature viewpoint to overlay the child’s experiences. All of the characters are familiar and fully drawn, but Frank’s brother and father are particularly captivating in their generous,loving natures. It is a book that reminds me strongly of Peace Like a River, by Leif Enger—one of my favorite novels of all time. It lingers sweetly in the mind long after its central mystery is laid to rest.

Behind Closed Doors, by B. A. Paris

Ever since Gone Girl, I’ve been waiting for the next great creepy relationship book with a twist. There’s just something about a gripping story in which an attractive façade disguises true, shudder-producing evil. The key to a successful story like that, though, is that its dangers need to be shocking, and its pretty surface needs to be at least passingly believable—we need to be horrified that such evil can live unquestioned in plain sight, and feel the emotional claustrophobia of the situation.

Here’s where Behind Closed Doors fails. We’re introduced to a successful 40-year-old lawyer, the ironically named Jack Angel, who has built his career defending domestic abuse victims. He is smooth, drop-dead gorgeous, and unmarried, and (we later find out) he has built a very pretty house of horror with metal security shutters on all of the downstairs windows on spec. After all, who knows when you’re going to run across the ideal prey? He’s been a creep since he was 13 years old and killed his mother—maybe. But apparently since then he’s gone regularly to Thailand to fulfill his nonspecific terrifying fantasies that don’t include sex with vague, nameless people, as one can apparently do with impunity in Thailand. It seems that he’d really like to up his game, though, and ideally move his horror show closer to home, for convenience. After all, he went to all of that trouble, building the house.

Fortunately for Jack, he eventually happens upon Grace, a young, successful, beautiful, globe-trotting professional woman with ridiculously irresponsible parents and a sister, Millie, who was born with Down’s Syndrome. He courts Grace and quickly wins her devotion by being nice to her sister. They marry hastily, Jack bizarrely skips out on the wedding night, and the next thing Grace knows, she’s in Thailand on her honeymoon, locked outside day after day on a hotel balcony, unable either to go to the bathroom (which I found to be the most chilling part) or to make anyone believe that her brand-new husband is a raving lunatic, despite her best efforts. But then, a thriller that can do no better than “My experience … was made even worse by the knowledge that when Jack wasn’t with me, he was exhilarating in someone else’s fear” is no thriller at all.

When the newlyweds return to the US from this idyllic (for one of them, anyway) wedding trip, Jack continues to hold Grace hostage. Every day, as Jack goes off to work, he locks Grace in an empty room for the day with nothing to do. If Grace somehow displeases him, she is forced to miss a weekend of visitation at Millie’s special boarding school. (Apparently, no one from Millie’s school finds it odd that previously devoted Grace would go almost two months without visiting her sister.) But the real threat is that once Millie graduates, Jack is planning to bring her to live with them and have his totally unspecified nonsexual but terrifying way with her, somehow feeding off of Millie’s fear, which Grace finds too frightening to even contemplate. He puts together a secret red room for Millie (despite the fact that her favorite color is yellow—the horror!) in the pretty house’s basement and decorates it with portraits of battered women that he forces Grace (a very, very amateur painter) to paint as a form of torture. When Grace has been particularly uncooperative, he punishes her with the ultimate form of torture, by making her … sit in the red room looking at the awful portraits she’s painted. The couples with whom he makes her socialize on the weekend and for whom she’s forced to bake perfect souffles have no idea of the anguish Grace is enduring, because she has no way of saying anything—Jack has cut off all access to pens.

As Millie inches closer to leaving her boarding school and coming to live permanently with Jack and Grace in the menacing red room, Grace finally feels the need to take action. Grace’s conundrum is that although she desperately needs to get away from Jack, she knows that in everyone else’s view, he’s Prince Charming. So whatever she plans to do needs to hold up against the judgment of the outside world. In unbelievable fashion, Millie herself hatches a surprising plot, giving Grace an unexpected tool. (What luck that Millie had been recently listening to Agatha Christie audiobooks!) Grace then creates her own elaborate plot and lays the groundwork for carrying it out by demanding a glass of whiskey every night in her prison room. For some reason, once she really puts her foot down, Jack is happy to share a whiskey with her night after night—whew! Thank goodness! Because without that poor decision on his part, Grace is never going to be able to carry out her plan to get out of her empty room and save Millie from the miserable fate of Jack feeding off of her fear in undefined but nonsexual ways!

Author B. A. Paris just doesn’t seem to be able to dredge up the kind of ickiness needed for this kind of story. And there’s really no shame in not having a sick, twisted mind—it just means less fun for the rest of us. With characters and plot that have little grounding in reality, the cringe-worthy questions the book asks on its cover—“The perfect marriage? Or the perfect lie?”—beg for a third option: The perfect dud.

Late One Night, by Lee Martin

late one night

 

Lee Martin’s LATE ONE NIGHT is one of those books that stays with you long after you read the final page. In it, Ronnie Black’s estranged wife, Della, and three of his seven children are killed when their trailer catches fire on a cold Illinois night. The inhabitants of Della and Ronnie’s hometown of Goldengate have already been talking about the pair for the past several months. After all, Ronnie left Della with their kids and moved in with a younger woman—plus he wasn’t a person who inspired many to defend him even before that.

LATE ONE NIGHT is a wonderful study of a small town. Martin’s characters and dialogue bring Goldengate, Illinois to life, and every reader will find someone they know in its pages. I loved the way each person was made more real in some small way to help me further immerse myself in the story, and by the end of the book I felt as much a member of the town as anyone I read about. Shifting points of view ensured that I always had any needed backstory, and it was done in a way that didn’t leave me scrambling to remember whose brain I was sharing.

Lee Martin has a special gift when it comes to writing literary fiction. He combines suspense and the darker side of people with the comforting rhythm of a small town, and this book is a terrific example of that; Martin captures the wistfulness and yearning for what could have been, the hopes that come with a fresh start, and the suffering caused by a tragedy. It’s one of those rare books that I’ll read again, and I definitely recommend it to others.