Catherine Hall. Days of Grace. Viking, 2010. ISBN 978-0670021765 304 pp. $
Elderly Nora, certain she is dying from some type of self-diagnosed abdominal or uterine cancer, attempts to absolve her guilt from incidents in her youth by taking in an unwed young mother who has been disowned by her family.
Chapters alternate between the past and present. The present focus on Rose and her baby, their fabrication of family, Nora seeing a doctor about her condition, and the hospice nurse that comes to live with them. Chapters set during the Blitz are concerned with Nora’s adjustments after being separated from her mother and a life of poverty when she is fostered in the country at the home of a pastor, his unhappy wife, and their teenaged daughter Grace. Nora has a crush on Grace that develops into a love she knows to be deeply inappropriate. Following the death of Nora’s mother, still in London where bombs are dropping, the Reverend Rivers shares the truth to Grace’s desire for a sister and the key to Mrs. River’s unhappiness, additional inappropriate behavior cause the two girls to run away to London; Grace, always precocious, falls in love, while Nora is forced to watch from the sidelines.
I anticipated this as a lesbian coming-of-age story set during WWII, but ultimately, this is a novel of atonement, redemption and friendship. It’s neatly structured with many tandems (Nora and Grace, past and present, two mothers, two inappropriate father figures, a twin birth, two deaths). Supporting characters are not very complex, and simply serve as an effective device to help tell Grace and Nora’s story. The slow pace and the reflective nature are likely to be deterrents to some readers. Hall did an adequate job of creating mystery and drama to pull me through the story and find out what secrets Nora is harboring, but I felt more curiosity than empathy while reading.
The shift from one timeline to another is marked only by action, and requires careful reading until it’s clear that chapters are alternating; in the final chapters, past and present come together as Nora opens up about her past to Rose and David.