Am I following a path already laid out for me, or am I making it myself?
Is the book that changed your life a decade past still relevant 10 years later? If your 28-year-old self was profoundly affected by some element of a story, would your 38-year-old self feel the same way? Would you even know where to look, where to be affected? I read Anthony Doerr’s debut novel, About Grace sometime in late-2004 and it blew my fragile little bookseller mind. I have literally sold hundreds of copies of the book to the people of San Diego – for a period of 2 or 3 years there I was recommending it to every customer I spoke to in the bookstore where I worked. My l’il shelftalker/elevator pitch for the last few years:
Of all the contemporary novels I have read in the last decade or so, Doerr’s first full-length novel stands out as an elegant, heartbreaking, and truly graceful piece of writing that has really stuck with me. A story of dreams & water, fathers & daughters, love, exile, and redemption. Protagonist David Winkler makes some poor life choices, although we have the benefit of a reader’s hindsight, but I found his lifelong journey towards the possibility of redemption to be almost overpoweringly compelling. Profoundly moving, erudite, & extremely well-crafted, this is really, truly, one of the best books I have ever read in my life.
As I’m sure you’re aware, dear reader, Anthony Doerr will be here in San Diego on July 30th – an “in conversation” event with yours truly (aka: The Book Catapult) at Warwick’s bookstore in La Jolla. So, in preparation for this, I’ve been steadily re-working my way through Doerr’s canon of work – short stories, essays, novels. Everything. And so I found myself returned to the doorstep of this novel – his first – About Grace, which affected me in such a profound and heady way ten years ago. I wanted to see, for one, if it stands up as well in reality as it has in my own head, but also to see if I would be as moved by it on the second go round. I find reading fiction to be such a personal venture – sure, everyone can read Gone Girl and get whatever it is people get out of that, but some works have so many layers and facets to them that each reader may connect with a different character, a different scene, a different sentence than the person reading it right next to them. (An argument can be made, I’m sure, that Gone Girl has the same multi-layered, reader-to-reader effect, but I’m not getting into that nonsense right now.)
Here’s the basic setup for Grace, before I get too far down the rabbit hole:
David Winkler is a lonely hydrologist from Alaska – he obsessively studies ice crystals in snowflakes & muses on evaporation and the circular patterns of water on our planet. And he dreams – but not like you and I, exactly. Sometimes, he dreams innocuous, innocent instances of life that end up “disbanding into fragments he could not reassemble” when he wakes, but that always come true in real life. Dreams of the overhead compartment on a plane opening and a bag falling out, a woman dropping a magazine in a supermarket line. Always he finds himself living inside the dreams as they unfold in his waking life. Sometimes, though, they’re not so innocuous:
… a few times in his life he had fuller visions: the experience of them fine-edged and hyperreal – like waking to find himself atop a barely frozen lake, the deep cracking sounding beneath his feet – and those dreams remained long after he woke, reminding themselves to him throughout the days to come, as if the imminent could not wait to become the past, or the present lunged at the future, eager for what would be.
When Winkler finds himself in that supermarket line with the woman who drops her magazine – Sandy, literally the woman of his dreams – they both realize that something magnetic is happening between them. An affair begins – all-consuming for Winkler, extra-marital for Sandy. She gets pregnant, they run away from Alaska together. Everything seems (relatively) fine until David has The Dream – where their infant daughter Grace slips from his arms and drowns in a flood. His indecision and general panic over this dream leads him not into a calm, rational conversation with his wife – which presumably could lead to any number of reasonable outcomes – but he convinces himself that the only way to be sure that Grace will not die in the foretold way is if he is taken out of the equation altogether. So he bails. Drives to New York, panics some more, thinking he’s entering The Dream, and buys passage on a merchant freighter bound for Caracas, Venezuela. And he goes.
I was actually giving this pitch to someone the other day, funny enough, and she complained that I was giving the whole story away. Not really – this is just Part One & all info you can get off the book jacket, but I’ll step back at this point. Winkler lands in the Caribbean where, penniless and alone, he lives not knowing if Grace survived or if Sandy will ever forgive him. It’s incredibly heartbreaking. Despite the fact that Winkler is an idiot for most of Act One (and much of 2 and 3, actually) I found myself gradually coming around to his plight. I think I might have been more quickly forgiving of Winkler’s faults the first time I read this, but the end result has been the same. See, despite whether or not his dreams are truly prescient, Winkler believes that they are – with every ounce of his soul – therefore… How can we deny him his convictions?
Who among us, in our lowest hour, can expect to be saved? Have you loved your life? Have you cherished each miraculous breath?
Winkler’s abandonment of Grace is understandably always the hangup people have when I tell them what the book is about. We don’t like that the main character ditches his family – especially just because of some stupid dream. (I didn’t even tell you of Winkler’s excruciating inability to just buck up and tell people about his dreams. Gaaaahhh!!!) But despite the madness of this abandonment, his distress at his situation is so visceral, so heartbreaking that I couldn’t help but root for him in the end. Don’t we all deserve to love and be loved? Everything he does is in service of protecting his family – even if that means leaving them behind, it’s the only way he feels he can ensure their safety. And that deserves respect in the end.
Amidst all this drama and emotional button-pushing, the one thing that really stood out for me this time was the sheer beauty of Doerr’s writing. Winkler makes photographic prints of snowflakes, fish swim below the glass floor of an island restaurant, flood waters rage down a suburban street – all the imagery is just so vivid and lush. I can’t think of another book I’ve read where all facets are so perfectly realized and come together so clearly in my imagination. Like I’ve said, reading fiction is often a very personal pursuit and there’s clearly just something about this story and the prose that strikes a chord with me. I didn’t have the same emotional response to Grace on the second reading, but I think I have a greater appreciation for Doerr’s writing itself than before. The structure of the novel was more interesting this time around and I loved that Winkler’s dreams were not the dominant core of the story. They guide things along, set things on their track, but the story is about a man who has to deal with the incredibly difficult decisions he has made in his own life. There’s a certain beauty to that, I think – the very realness of Winkler’s story, despite this weird dream thing he’s got going on. It doesn’t matter what the dreams tell him, it’s about what he does in the waking world that counts.
There’s a great sequence where Winkler is hitching a ride with a long-haul trucker who has a record player rigged up in between the seats in his cab. They listen to Sam Cooke as they drive across British Columbia, Winkler pondering the course his life has taken.
“Is this real?” he asked.
“Say what, pardner?” Brent reached to adjust the volume.
“Is this real? What’s happening to me?”
Reflectors in the road thwapped beneath the tires, setting a regular, almost reassuring pace. Thwap, thwap, thwap. Hooh! Aah! said Sam Cooke. Brent gave Winkler a curious look.
“Real? It’s as real as rain, I guess. Real as Jesus.”
*The snowflake image is by the amazing macrophotographer Alexey Kljativ: www.flickr.com/photos/chaoticmind75