Author: Fiona McCallum
Harlequin RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan
Saving Grace is the first in the Button Jar series by Fiona McCallum. I didn’t know this when I read the book – I received an advance reading copy from the publisher and nothing in this copy gives an inkling that it’s part of a series. It puts me in a bit of a quandary as I write this review because my initial response was based on reading Saving Grace as a stand-alone book and thinking that too many loose ends were not tied up (after reading other reviews, I’m not alone in expressing this thought).
Set in rural South Australia, Saving Grace introduces Emily Oliphant, an unhappily married thirty-something woman. When she married John Stratten, widely thought to be quite the catch, she thought it was the beginning of an exciting new adventure — standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the most eligible farmer in the district and pitching in to build a thriving agricultural business. Three years later, however, Emily sees her marriage for what it is — a loveless tie to a callous man who emotionally abuses Emily and expects her to be at his beck and call … in every way.
Catching John in a ‘good’ moment, Emily convinces him to let her have a puppy, which she names Grace; he allows this on the proviso that Grace remains outside, but the puppy has other ideas, causing even more conflict as John deals with the situation harshly. Things come to a head in this loveless marriage when John shoots at Grace – he misses, but to Emily, he’s stepped way over the line. Braving her mother’s disapproval and small town opinion, Emily moves out, first into her new friend Barbara’s home, and then into a ramshackle property in dire need of love … just like Emily. As she takes these shaky steps towards a new future, Emily learns who she can count on, discovers hidden talents, meets new friends and gradually builds her confidence in herself. The possibility of romance is hinted at, but not developed … this may be something that builds in the next book (assuming Emily is still the protagonist) or it may simply reflect Emily’s caution in this area, given the recency of her marriage breakdown. Through it all, there’s Grace, a happy puppy who brings joy into Emily’s bleak outlook.
Like many, I’ve happily jumped on board the rural fiction train and I love the insight into Australian country towns, small communities and our ‘wide brown land’. The genre has piggy-backed on the tree change/sea change phenomenon with ease; it’s a great reminder that there’s life away from the ‘burbs and that that love, romance, adventure and mystery happens even if you don’t live in the city. Just like life can be pretty ho-hum wherever you live. Sometimes when I read a rural fiction novel the community sounds so appealing and friendly that I almost want to pack my bags and drag the family there, but that wasn’t the case with Saving Grace. As I read, the community’s attitude towards Emily was exactly what I have heard some small communities can be like at times – suspicious of outsiders and judgmental, closing ranks when they think one of their ‘own’ has been mistreated (I realise this isn’t what all people are like in such communities). This aspect was conveyed well to the reader, making Emily’s decision to live out of town entirely understandable. Emily’s friend, Barbara, summed it up perfectly towards the end of the book:
‘Isn’t it funny how small country towns are portrayed as the epitome of mateship, the Aussie spirit, banding together in times of catastrophe – blah, blah, blah. If only people knew how cruel and oppressive postcard-picture-perfect little towns can be.’
Author McCallum also lightly explores issues such as domestic violence and the lack of support in rural communities for women (and men) and families in such circumstances, farmers’ connection to the land, divorce and parent-child relationships. It’s nothing deep, more a case of sowing the seeds. As I read, the themes that struck a chord with me the most were the emotional abuse Emily suffered and the fact that her mother, Enid, was too concerned with what people would think than her own daughter’s well-being.
Saving Grace was a pleasant enough read and I enjoyed aspects of it, particularly the depiction of rural life and the descriptions of rural areas, but overall it left me feeling a bit flat and unsatisfied. I suspect that this is largely due to my expectation that it was a stand-alone book and I do think I would have felt differently had that been clear at the start. When I finished I thought, “But what about the button jar …” (readers will by then have an inkling of the significance of the button jar – we know what’s likely to have happened but there’s no resolution) and “What about …”. There seemed to be so many plot points opened and no resolution, which was frustrating. However, even when I tried to set this expectation aside and think of the book as a series, it reminded me of a long-running soap opera, without the passion. I wanted to love it, but sadly, this one just missed the ‘love it’ factor for me. That said, you now know it’s part of a series, so you’ll go in with far different expectations. If you want something light, give it a go.
Available from good bookstores and Harlequin Australia. This copy was courtesy of Harlequin.
Bookish treat: Emily makes a delectable sounding apricot jam in Saving Grace. I wouldn’t mind some on some toast about now.