Volume 17 • Issue 25 | Nov. 12 - Nov. 19, 2004


By Anthony Doerr
Scribner Books
$25, 416 pages

A man’s path to the past

Noted author’s first novel is a meditation on paternal estrangement


Anthony Doerr burst onto the literary scene in 2002 with his critically acclaimed story collection, “The Shell Collector.” The book won the Discover Prize for Fiction and the Ohioana Book Award, and also brought Doerr a share of the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Award. In addition, Doerr has received two O. Henry Prizes, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and Princeton University’s prestigious Hodder Fellowship.

Needless to say, I was pleased when asked to review Doerr’s second book, the recently released novel “About Grace.”

The novel is the story of David Winkler, born and raised and living a quiet, lonely life in Anchorage, Alaska. He wears thick glasses, works as a hydrologist for the weather service and is fascinated by water in all its forms. He is also prescient and has premonitions about the nature of things.

David calls them dreams. Not auguries or visions, exactly, or presentiments or premonitions. Calling them dreams lets David edge as close as he could to what they were: sensations—experiences even—that visit him as he sleeps and fades after waking up, only to re-emerge in the minutes or hours or days to come.

Many of David’s dreams are mundane—a piece of luggage will fall from an overhead compartment on an airplane. Others are quite disturbing—a man carrying a hatbox will be hit and killed by a bus. The visions are random and emotionally crippling, and leave David ill-equipped to lead a normal life.

One day David sees in a dream that he will meet a woman, Sandy, at a magazine rack in the supermarket. After an obsessive, stalker-like pursuit, he and Sandy begin an affair. She becomes pregnant, and he convinces her to leave her unhappy marriage. They move to Cleveland to begin anew as husband and wife.

In Cleveland, David gets a job at a television station, the couple settles into a house nestled in a ravine near the Chagrin River, and Sandy gives birth to a daughter, Grace. Life is beautiful until one night David dreams their low-lying home is flooded and that in trying to save his infant daughter from the rushing water, he inadvertently causes her death. Unable to deal with the possibility of causing Grace’s death, David decides to keep the premonition from coming true by running away, eventually winding up in the Caribbean.

Afraid, confused and struggling to separate dreams from reality, David takes a job at a hotel, earning a meager living. He writes letters to Sandy, begging for news about Grace, wanting to know if she’s alive, until Sandy angrily returns his missives, questions unanswered, and tells him not to contact her again.

Luckily, David is befriended by an expatriate Chilean family with a young daughter of their own, Naaliyah, and they become his surrogate family. Over the course of 25 years, with much encouragement from the maturing Naaliyah, he builds the courage to seek out and face the life he left behind.

It is at this point, in fact, that the novel opens—David on a plane back to the United States after 25 years in self-imposed exile. The story is then told in extended flashbacks interspersed with the ongoing action of David searching for Grace, still not knowing if she’s even alive.

Back in the U.S., David doggedly pursues all the Grace Winklers he’s researched on databases. His sometimes funny, sometimes sad travels lead him from New Jersey to Tennessee to Idaho and eventually back to Alaska, where Sandy now lives after returning to her reliable first husband. At this point, David has lost faith in his quest, and only Naaliyah, now in Alaska in graduate school, can give him the courage to continue.

Throughout the novel, Doerr’s prose is befitting of the awards he has won. His language is lush and evocative, and his ability to connect his characters and by extension the reader to nature through description and metaphor is astounding, for instance, “the sea teething” on a coral reef. Unfortunately, his characters seem more connected to nature than to themselves, which makes them a bit dull. David, in particular, is disconnected—primarily from his fears—and he is therefore saddled with an almost oppressive inertia that fuels the novel’s languid, occasionally too slow pace.

“About Grace” is a beautifully written, slowly unfolding exploration of one man fleeing from and then ultimately facing his fears. The novel serves as an allegory for all of us seeking to or needing to face our fears. And perhaps the book’s slow pace is a slice of realism, because don’t we all face our fears a bit more slowly and with a bit more trepidation than seems logical or desirable to the casual observer?

Readers seeking an upbeat or action-filled page-turner should probably look elsewhere. But those looking to settle in and lose themselves in Doerr’s lush, slowly unfolding prose will be thrilled with this melancholy novel.

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