Some people take easily to this idea of the miraculous, while others just as fervently deny what they regard as a tear in the natural fabric of the world. Most of us, one suspects, stand somewhere in the middle of these two camps, always looking for possible explanations but allowing, too, for the unexplainable. (Here some Christians provide an amusing example. Although acknowledging the divinity of Jesus Christ, they nonetheless seek out every explanation possible for the New Testament miracles like the loaves and the fishes or walking on water. They can believe, in other words, that God once walked as a man on the earth, but not on water.)
In Full of Grace (ISBN978-0-06-137453-1, $12.99), novelist Dorothea Benton Frank takes a bold, brave look at the idea of the miraculous — not only the small daily miracles which so many of us in our busy lives overlook but also miracles as we traditionally think of them, events so grand and outrageous that they fill us with awe.
Benton’s protagonist is Maria Graziella Russo, a high-spirited young woman who demands that her family and friends call her Grace. Having recently moved at her father’s behest from Manhattan to Charleston, S.C., Grace finds herself once again caught up in the problems of her raucous Italian family: her overbearing father Big Al; her subservient mother Connie; her domineering, acid-tongued grandmother Nonna; her siblings. All are Italian; all are devoutly Catholic; and all are snarled in different problems. Grace, who works for an international, high-end travel company, loves her boisterous family but finds herself relating less and less to their faith and their Italian customs.
Her predicament deepens when she falls in love with Michael Higgins, a research scientist at the medical center. In the eyes of Grace’s parents and Nonna, Michael has some major strikes against him. He’s a fallen-away Catholic and possibly an atheist. He is working in stem-cell research, which contradicts the tenets of their Catholic faith. He and Grace are living together without being married. And worst of all, he’s not Italian but of Irish descent. “The Irish baby butcher,” as Big Al labels him, is forbidden access to the Russo compound.
The story takes on new complications when Nonna falls and breaks her hip, followed by the discovery that Michael has a deadly brain tumor. With Nonna living in a despised assisted living facility while undergoing physical therapy, and with Michael suffering depression not only from his illness but from the death of his own mother, Grace finds herself backed into unexpected emotional corners, trying to help assuage her mother’s guilt over Nonna’s condition while looking for ways to find a cure for Michael. Her life takes a turn when she seeks counsel from the local parish priest, who surprises her by his understanding about her doubts in God. Eventually, she begins praying for Michael’s recovery.
At this point in the novel, Grace ends up conducting a tour of local parishioners to Mexico — they’ve won a church raffle sponsored by Big Al — and they visit the Cathedral of Guadalupe, founded on the spot where in the sixteenth century the Virgin Mary supposedly appeared to a local Indian, Juan Diego, an event which led to the conversion of the native population. Michael joins the tour here and begins to encounter some supernatural forces that affect his own views of religion and faith.
In addition to her intriguing plot — to reveal more here would give away too much of the story — Frank brings other gifts to Full of Grace. Her informal prose and slang help make Grace real to readers. Grace’s observations, particularly those regarding her family, are humorous and often biting, and also serve to reveal Grace’s own imperfections; her constant sniping at her future sister-in-law, Marianne, show us her uncharitable side, offsetting her worshipful love of Michael.
Frank also writes convincingly of different topics — medical research, cancer, the travel industry, religion and theology, miracles. Her accounts of Grace’s occupation as a host to different travel groups who fly off to Sicily, to the Napa Valley, to Mexico, are accurately drawn and often quite funny. The Sicily and Napa tours in particular are entertaining, with her descriptions of the annoying wealthy clients who rally round Grace when they learn of the stresses she faces back home with Nonna and Michael.
What is perhaps most fascinating about Full of Grace is the line that the author walks regarding her novel’s genre. Publishers tend to separate religious from secular novels, a divide that is at times unnatural. Frank manages to occupy the narrow territory between the two; her spiritual message is not subtle — Grace comes to believe in miracles and enters more fully into her faith — but at the same time, she has created in Grace a woman with a sharp tongue, real problems and a zest for living. By this combination, Frank has herself performed a minor miracle in getting Full of Grace published as a secular work of fiction.
Read the book. You may not end it believing in miracles, but you will definitely believe in Grace Russo.
Full of Grace by Dorothea Benton Frank. William Morrow, 2008. 352 pages.