Grace Abounding, Maureen Howard’s most recent novel, is the story of Maude Dowd, who, as the work opens, is a widow with a teenage daughter, Elizabeth. The dust jacket proclaims that Maude “comes of age” after her first husband’s death, but this work is more than a novel about a woman’s psychic development. It is also about mankind and what, for lack of a less pretentious term, can be called “the human condition.”
The book is divided into four sections, the last being a kind of epilogue. The first shows Maude making weekly visits to her senile mother and attempting to communicate with her withdrawn daughter. Maude’s first husband has already died before the novel opens, and, in spite of her attempts to redecorate her house and thus establish a new identity, her disorientation is apparent. She has constant sexual fantasies about men she meets in casual encounters and even seems to court death on the dangerous winter drives to her mother’s house. She purposely neglects to repair a leaking tire, lets her gas tank run nearly empty, and refuses to drive during daylight, preferring night and back roads “where if my tire blows, I will be stranded.”
By the time the second section opens, Maude has remarried and earned a degree in counseling. In flashbacks, the reader learns that a school production of West Side Story revealed a hitherto unknown singing talent in Elizabeth and that, while Maude pursued her degree, Elizabeth prepared for a career in music, a career she abandoned when she married. In the second section, she is expecting her first child. In the third part, all the major characters face some type of crisis. Elizabeth takes her infant son to visit the house where she grew up and, encountering a violent storm, is unable to return home. She seeks shelter with a former neighbor—a fat, ill-kempt, bawdy woman whose deceased sister had been the town poet. Ironically, Elizabeth discovers that Mattie, the living sister, was actually the town’s “Emily Dickinson” and merely passed the poems off as her sister’s. Mattie threatens her physically, but Elizabeth and her child escape.
The section then explores the relationship of Bert Lasser, Maude’s second husband, with his minister son from a former marriage. Stopping to see him on impulse on the way back from a business conference, Bert eavesdrops on his son and can only conclude that “He’s a limp clergyman, empty.” He leaves without even seeing his son. Maude, meanwhile, has been having office surgery for a small cyst—the minor chalazion of this section’s title—and as she makes her way home after the surgery, bandaged and unsteady on her feet, she is consumed by self-pity. This section ends with Bert’s return home and his lovemaking with Maude.
The small epilogue, “Grace Note,” is not about any of the main characters and, as a rounding-out of the novel, is problematic at best. It opens with the woman who inherited Mattie’s house after her death throwing out all of Mattie’s manuscript poems. It then switches to Bert Lasser’s son as he dines with his rich parishioners and later visits the poorer people in the neighborhood, even though they are “not on the calendar.” It is hard to know what Howard is saying about this young man. His visits bearing clothes to the poor seem to imply a hitherto unrevealed compassion in him; one also learns, however, that he sometimes parodies sermons for their entertainment, certainly a cynical act. It is perhaps unwise on Howard’s part to allow a minor character—and one introduced so late in the novel—to have, as it were, the last word. The reader simply does not know how to take this oblique conclusion.
This rather long plot summary should give some idea of the texture of the novel, although it leaves out a lot: Maude’s affair with and betrayal by a man who runs a religious gift shop; her work with a seemingly autistic child who later jumps from his bedroom window to his death; Elizabeth’s relationship with her husband, who is accepted only half-heartedly by her family. In fact, it may be that Howard goes into too much detail about too many people—detail extraneous to her main plot.
There are also anomalies in the development of the central character. As the second section opens, the reader is confronted by a Maude so radically different from the one in the beginning as to seem the same in name only. Puzzled, the reader continues reading but is not told how this change came about until late into the section, a bit of clumsy pacing on Howard’s part. Furthermore, the explanation of the mother’s transformation is not really clear; the discovery of Elizabeth’s fine voice might turn Maude into a stage mother,...
(The entire section is 1935 words.)