The Meaning of Grace by Deborah Forster is a story of betrayals – real and perceived, small and large. It’s also a story of siblings and of mothers and daughters.
“How did it come to this? I thought I tried to be fair to them both and to Ted. It seems that nothing is ever good enough now. My mother was such a mother to me, but I never understood brothers and sisters. I just thought they’d be the best thing.”
At the centre of the story is Grace Fisher, a somewhat detached mother of three. Grace does her best in the circumstances – she leaves her depressed husband and Melbourne behind and moves to Yarrabeen, a seaside town in Victoria. There she makes do – a job in a bakery, a new relationship and raising the kids.
Each child is left to find meaning on their own. Edie, the eldest, feels perpetually unloved and short-changed. The middle child, Juliet, careens through life, pretty and manipulative, her steely resolve revealed in a couple of surprising plot twists. Ted, the baby of the family is largely immune to what life is dishing up to the Fishers, sheltered by the women around him. When Grace is diagnosed with terminal cancer, the siblings are forced to deal with family relationships.
“Her hard eyes are not really Grace’s at all, though the anonymity is something she recognises from childhood. But she sees it’s just a reference to the mother who scared them, who wanted them not to bother her, at least not all the time, and whose fury was well worth avoiding. That mother is lost and so is her kindness. Growing old has revealed all the mothers she once was.”
There are many themes in this book however Forster’s presentation of the uncomfortable truths of motherhood (including having favourites and children failing expectations) through Grace’s frank and unapologetic voice stands out –
“…Juliet rang, guilty and drunk one night. Grace listened like a priest with a creeping feeling of horror that one of her children could do this to another, and that she must have caused it somehow. That she’d been careless with them. Her scalp prickled at the thought.”
“For Ted, it’s as if he has entered a world of certainty, and she puts her arms around him and holds him like she’ll never let go. This is the thing about Ted, she thinks, he always comes when I need him. She calmly discounts what Edith does for her because that’s what girls do. She discounts again what Juliet doesn’t do, because that’s just Juliet – the free spirit. Which brings her back to Ted, her boy, and boys are not required in the same way. They bring a kind of joy to a mother that’s inexplicable and when he hugs you, you stay hugged.”
Flashed against this is the children’s loyalty and love for Grace –
“Mum is the reference point. If you ever get confused about anything, there she is, waiting with all her knowledge of you. She is the library of me, he thinks.”
Foster’s writing style came as a surprise. I was expecting something more ‘mainstream’. Why, I’m not sure – perhaps the book jacket suggests ‘mum-lit’ rather than contemporary literature. There are many passages that are simply beautiful –
“…time passed in packets of years…”
“In the photo album in Edie’s mind, Grace that night is happy as a box full of birds, a general in charge of a cellophane bag of scorched almonds.”
“At the table, their mother is knitting moss-stitch jumpers. She only likes moss stitch. Her fingers ricochet, elastic as echoes, the clacking of needles like dentures speaking another language, speaking the language of mothers.”
I found aspects of this book confronting, predominantly because the emotional element of the story is so ‘normal’. Who do mothers confide in – other mothers? No, not usually – there’s a competitiveness to motherhood that is distasteful but real. I’ve had a handful of frank discussions with my mothers group but there will always be a shade of wariness. The most purposeful discussions I’ve had about motherhood have been with my own mother – which leads me to wonder, do we parent the way that we’ve been parented?
3.5/5 Do I need to change my rating system to a score out of ten? When it comes to books like this, yes. It’s just shy of four stars only because I felt slightly disengaged from the main characters at the very end. I must stress that the ending was excellent but I didn’t cry – cancer, families and final wishes – regular readers of my blog would know that this would ordinarily have me bawling but no, nothing.
The local bakery features in The Meaning of Grace. Personally, I think nothing distinguishes a bakery more than how they handle the lamington.