It took me forever to finish Jeffrey Lent’s highly praised novel A Peculiar Grace. Forever. Just under 400 pages, it felt twice as long because Lent’s prose is just shy of purple and nothing happens. Nothing. Well, okay, that’s not exactly true. Stuff happens.
40-something Hewitt Pearce is leading a solitary life in the Vermont house he inherited from his father. Hewitt’s a blacksmith, a prickly artistic type who “had to sit there a while to see if it was a day for iron or not. This was the essence of what his customers perceived as a great problem – the fact he refused to state a deadline however vague.” A sign near his forge’s door states: “If you want it done your way learn how to do it & make it yourself. Your commission is not my vision.”
Well, okay then.
Into Hewitt’s insular life comes 20-something Jessica. Her VW breaks down on Hewitt’s property and he offers her something to eat and a place to clean up. So she pretty much moves in. Jessica isn’t 100% emotionally secure, and Hewitt is 100% emotionally closed off so anything that’s going to happen between them is going to be a long time coming. (No pun intended.)
There are complications. Hewitt’s still hung up on Emily, a girl he met and loved many years ago. She’d married someone else and Hewitt has worshipped and brooded from afar ever since. There are also some family skeletons including a famous painter father, and an older sister Hewitt’s on the outs with. Then Emily’s husband dies and Hewitt decides it’s time to make his feelings known to her once more, but really – can these two crazy middle-aged kids overcome their past and make it? And what about Jessica?
I kept reading. I don’t know why. When Hewitt’s mother, sister and niece arrived for a visit and these family members started talking to each other it was bizarre. People don’t actually talk to each other like this, do they?
“Jesus mother. Don’t you flush?”
“I certainly do. …And haven’t you heard about conserving water? Speaking of which you need to change the gaskets in the faucets of the tub and sink upstairs. At Broad Oakes they sent around a pamphlet about the unnecessary use of water. And not just because of the drought but because there’s long-term stress on the aquifers all over the U.S. and people still want green lawns in August”
“I don’t think so, girlie. Whatever nonsense you’re up to here I want to be able to watch your face when it comes out.”
By the time Hewitt and Jessica (and Emily and Hewitt’s sister) finally work out their messy and strangely overwrought lives, I had reader’s fatigue. Partly it had to so with the stylistic nature of Lent’s prose – weirdly fragmented and dense – and partly it had to do with not really caring very much about any of these people.