Tending to Grace, by Kimberly Newton Fusco, ended up on my list of "books that I want to read" some time back. I don't remember who mentioned it, or what they said. But I finally picked it up from the library this week. And I'm glad that I did. Tending to Grace is a lyrical little novel about the slow blossoming of an emotionally damaged girl.
Fifteen-year-old New Yorker Cornelia has such a problem with stuttering that she scarcely ever speaks. Even though she's a bookworm, her silence lands her in remedial classes. Her silence also leaves her isolated from her peers. Which is ok with Cornelia, because her priority is caring for her vulnerable, damaged mother, Lenore. Cornelia's isolation becomes literal, however, when Lenore drops her off at the rural home of Great-Aunt Agatha, and heads off to Vegas with a boyfriend. Agatha lives in a falling-down house with cracks in the walls, and no indoor plumbing. Having lived alone for many years, she's far from inclined to be maternal to Cornelia, nor does she need Cornelia to care for her. Eventually, however, aunt and niece find common ground, and a measure of healing.
Tending to Grace is a very quiet book. There aren't many characters or settings. Most of the book takes place on Agatha's homestead. The chapters are short - some just a paragraph long. The story is necessarily told in the first person. Since Cornelia hardly ever says anything, the only way for the reader to get to know her at all is to read her thoughts as the narrator. Although Tending to Grace isn't a verse novel, it has the feel of one, with spare, graceful writing. Here is the first sentence:
"We drove out Route 6 on a silent day at the end of May, my mother, the boyfriend, and I." (Page 1)
Doesn't that read like poetry? How about this:
"I am a shadow. I burrow deeper within myself and pray that if the other kids don't see me, they won't talk to me. I pretend I am the desk, the book, the floor, and we all expect less of me each day." (Page 5)
I like "we all expect less of me". The whole book is like that, with a lot left unsaid in the white spaces, and Cornelia's off-kilter viewpoint crystal clear. Agatha is a delightful character, too. Not at all nurturing (of people, anyway), she marches to the beat of her own drummer.
Although Tending to Grace was published as young adult fiction, to me it reads more like a tween, or even middle grade, book. I was surprised when I learned that Cornelia was fifteen - she feels much younger. Lenore's mental issues (bipolar disorder?) are alluded to, but they are only seen from Cornelia's forgiving, protective, viewpoint, so they don't feel threatening. I suppose that the coming of age aspects make this work as a young adult book.
This is the story of a girl who, in the real world, would slip through the cracks. No father, neglectful mother, apparent learning disability, remedial classes... But in Tending to Grace, Cornelia gets an unexpected second chance. She has no huge epiphanies, no dramatic crises. But she lands in the right place, and gradually finds herself.
Tending to Grace is a well-written novel, one that you can read in a single sitting but that packs an emotional punch. Fusco won the Schneider Family Book Award for the middle school age range for this book in 2006 (the same category in which Cynthia Lord won for RULES in 2007). Tending to Grace also reminded me a bit of Susan Taylor Brown's Hugging the Rock and Andrea Beaty's Cicada Summer. This title was published in 2004, and is well worth a second look.
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.