Review: A Thread of Grace

“God save us from idealists!” Renzo cries softly. “They dream of a world without injustice, and what crime won’t they commit to get it?” ~ Mary Doria Russell, A Thread of Grace

A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell
426 pages
Published by Ballantine, 2005
Genre: Historical fiction
Re-readability: I appreciated its message, but I won’t be putting myself through this one again.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed by Pete

Spoiler-free review

I don’t read a lot of historical fiction. In part because I really don’t gel with historical figures being characters with speaking lines in a book. It doesn’t matter how much research was done on them—it always seems artificial to me. And isn’t it? A Thread of Grace is a thoroughly researched historical fiction that doesn’t pretend it’s a movie. It’s brutal, unfair, and sometimes random. But it succeeds in its aims.

Be prepared for a seriously massive and confusing cast of characters. There’s a dramatis personae section at the front of the book, but it only helps so much. Two of the main focuses are Claudette and Albert Blum, Jewish refugees who make their way through the Alps to an Italian village. The book begins shortly after Italy’s surrender, when thousands of Jewish refugees headed south. But Italy is largely occupied by the Germans, and it’s far from safe for the refugees or the people who protect them.

I couldn’t help making a parallel between Claudette and Albert’s story and the forgettable protagonists in Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. Doerr’s story featured World War II as a backdrop, and his characters waltzed whimsically through dangerous times but most ultimately emerged learning some cute and contrived lessons. (I am holding back a bit. You can read our team review here for more of my opinions on my least favorite book of all time).

In A Thread of Grace, love does not always prevail, and worse things happen to people than getting blown up. Claudette and Albert endure horrific events that leave them permanently altered. There were other travesties in World War II than death, and their consequences were complex and have affected generations. This is not a heroic war story that will leave you with hope in your heart—it is a grim tale of ruined families and how hope is often a bug squished under a tank tread.

Many characters do not survive this novel. There is an oppressive amount of death, and at times it almost felt meaningless. But Russell did this in a deliberate and thematic way: she flipped a coin to determine whether characters lived or died to simulate the luck needed to survive the horrors of war. I didn’t know this until I finished the book, and the many undeserved deaths did have me scratching my head—but looking back on Russell’s message, I can’t think of a more appropriate way to convey her point.

My main issue was the pacing and the writing. The huge cast of characters was hard to handle and made it difficult to care deeply about anyone with the frequently changing perspectives. Though it’s a good book, I can’t really say I enjoyed it. It would be more accurate to say that I appreciated it.

This dense, unromantic war story may not make you feel great, but it is an experience worth pushing through. Just leave your hope and heroism at the door.

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