REVIEW: GRACE GROWS BY SHELLE SUMNERS

GRACE GROWS
Author: Shelle Sumners
Allen & Unwin RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

Grace GrowsAs we all know, best-laid plans sometimes fall by the wayside when life gets in the way. Grace Grows is a fun and engaging novel based on the premise that, to paraphrase John Lennon, “life is what happens when you’re busy making plans”. While the concept is nothing new, the book delivers an old idea with a fresh approach that makes it highly readable.

Twenty-something Grace is a planner. A textbook editor, she lives pretty much by the book, making sensible choices and dutiful, if sometimes uncomfortable, compromises. She’s responsible, reliable and conscientious – words parents love to see on report cards – and has a tendency to take herself, and life, a little too seriously. She’s in a comfortable, if not passionate and stimulating, live-in relationship with her boyfriend, Steven; they’ll probably get married eventually, but that’s to be expected, right?

When she meets Tyler, a singer-songwriter man-child, her carefully constructed life starts to unravel. The opening scene plays out like something in a Hollywood rom-com: “aggressively attired” girl on a mission (her attire is an attempt to burst her employers’ bubble that she is just “the sweetest little thing”) meets super-cute dog-walking guy on her way out the door and stops to help him with the dogs. Putting the episode behind her, she heads off to work, only to recognise the said super-cute guy again when he’s singing at a restaurant. And so it begins – the unraveling. Or is it the knitting together of something far better?

Grace and Tyler form an unlikely friendship; sometimes Grace can’t even think why, since they have so little in common, and yet, for reasons she can’t explain, she wants the friendship to continue. Tyler brings out a side of her that no one else seems to be able to access. And life seems more interesting when he’s around. However, when she becomes aware of the extent of Tyler’s feelings (he writes beautiful, soulful feelings about her), she distances herself from him, believing that is for the best. After all, she is involved with someone else. This works a treat until he collapses in front of her apartment block with acute appendicitis.

Over the course of about three years, their relationship waxes and wanes. Tyler remains steadfast in his feelings for Grace, but Grace does not want to admit that her feelings might possibly be more than friendly. Falling in love with him would ruin everything, she reasons. It wouldn’t be safe. So instead, she dances around her feelings, allowing herself to drift along the path of obligation, holding words back when they should be spoken, and trying to be in control of life instead of letting go and living. Will she ever admit her feelings and let love take its course, or will she leave it too late?

The title is well chosen for this book. “Grace Grows” (which is drawn from an observation made by her best friend, Peg) relates to her emotional and mental growth among other things; it’s also clear that she “grows” Tyler. It’s true that both characters mature significantly over the three years they dance around each other. It’s not as simple as “opposites attract”; the two leads bring out each other’s strengths while compensating for the other’s weaknesses. Growth of the individual is as important a theme in the novel as the growth of the relationship.

I liked the characters in this book. Grace and I have a lot in common – we love books and old music, we both tend to compromise and to value approval too much, and we both have difficulty letting go at times. I really got her love of words – the fact that what they’re saying is as important as how they’re used. I laughed at her frustration when others showed less care with the technical use of words – the your/you’re thing drives me batty. But for all Tyler’s lack of concern about grammar, spelling and books, he also got words. He knew how to use words for emotional value, whereas Graces’s career meant a focus on educational/logical value. That’s what I liked most about him – he wasn’t afraid of saying how he felt; he didn’t try to cover it up as many men do. Unknown to Grace, he was speaking her love language.

The secondary characters were refreshing and provided good contrast. Peg is a bohemian, arty woman who’s a practicing Pagan – the opposite of sensible Grace in some ways, and yet much more worldly and wise. Grace’s parents, who divorced when she was young, provide the why for Grace’s need for control and responsible action. Steven, Grace’s boyfriend, is also sensible – he’s rather uninspiring and it’s clear that while he loves Grace, the relationship is more one of mutual comfort than passion. I felt a bit sorry for him though – the nice guy once again is left in the lurch (not that Tyler is a bad guy, but he’s the fun one), but forgot about him pretty quickly as the novel progressed. Sorry Steven, but that was pretty much your purpose here.

While Grace Grows is at its essence, a light and sweet romanceit’s not a linear story where boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, something happens but in the end everything works out. It’s more circular as the characters get caught in a parallel cycle that is almost frustrating and irritating to be caught up in. I almost want to lie down and be the speed hump that will stop the wheels of indecision spinning, just so the couple gets on the same track. Which means I actually cared about them.

I enjoyed this book – it surprised me by being more than just another sweet little rom-com. I liked the slow-burn romance, because it gave me hope that after the happy ending (yes, there is a HEA, sorry to spoil that) here was a couple that would make it work beyond the pages. A good debut and I look forward to reading more from Shelle Sumners.

Available from good bookstores and Allen & Unwin. This copy was courtesy of Allen & Unwin.

Bookish treat: It’s a girly book, so chocolate all the way! And listen to the Grace Grows soundtrack while you read.