A Thread of Grace

by Mary Doria Russell
ISBN: 0375501843

I suppose there is no good way to write a novel about Jewish refugees hiding in Italy in during the last two years of World War II without it being a heartbreaking book. If it weren’t hearbreaking, it wouldn’t ring true.

Some of the heartbreak in Grace relies more on the weight of history than on Russell’s narrative, though, as she keeps too many characters at maddeningly arms-length distance. This allows her a broader scope, but sacrifices the powerful, smaller intimacies present in her two previous books, The Sparrow and Children of God.

I wonder if she was consciously trying to write a different kind of book: a bestseller. All the elements are here — sweeping historical narrative, dangerous intrigue, romance, thriller-type pacing — and they work. Russell manages to believably interconnect the stories of Jews hiking over the Alps to reach the supposed freedom of the Italian countryside, the local Jewish population’s struggles to face what is happening in their country, Italian resistance fighters, a deserting Nazi doctor, a paratrooper, German officers in Italy, and the Catholic Church’s involvement in hiding and helping Jews.

Russell loves to investigate moral gray areas. She takes characters and situations begging to be interpreted in black and white, and then creates complexity that makes this thinking appropriately impossible. Doctor Schramm confesses to the murder of 91,867 people, yet Russell doesn’t make him a monster, and he is not incapable of emotion or mercy. Characters who make smart decisions or reach out to help others don’t all survive; neither does everyone who makes safer choices. Russell flipped a coin to determine which characters lived or died, reflecting the often arbitrary nature of survival in wartime.

This is an engrossing novel, and a tearjerker. It isn’t without flaws, the most frustrating for me being that I didn’t get to know the characters the way I wanted to. Renzo Leoni will no doubt be compared to Emilio Sandoz; if only we knew him as well. The book would have had to be twice as long to accomplish this, so I can see why Russell made the choices she did. Her novel is still a strong story, just not all the story I wanted it to be. (I should add that I so deeply loved her first two books, it verges on impossible that I would be completely satisfied with this one. Perhaps I am not holding her to a fair standard; that is the problem with writing something loved so well.)

Her first two books asked difficult questions about belief, about faith in God in the face of both miracles and torture. Here, her questions revolve around the possibilities of redemption. I am eager to see which questions she takes on next. Recommended.

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