Amazing Grace Adams

Image of Amazing Grace Adams: A Novel
Release Date: 
September 5, 2023
Henry Holt and Co.
Reviewed by: 

“Despite its flaws, the book ultimately succeeds in getting the reader to root for Grace.”

The writing in the debut novel Amazing Grace Adams is truly amazing, with powerful, multisensory descriptions of everything from blisters to childbirth. For instance, here’s how the eponymous protagonist feels as she trudges for miles through London in the heat of a summer afternoon: “she is being seared across her scalp, along her shoulders, down the front of her newly liver-spotted chest. The impression is she is being cooked alive.”

Unfortunately, the focus of that wonderful writing, Grace Adams, is whiny and hard to care about. But the plot and the writing keep the reader engaged.

The story is told in three alternating time periods, mostly from Grace’s point of view:

The “Now” narrative that launches the book is the most engrossing. Grace, a language teacher and translator, has decided that the only way to salvage her relationship with her daughter Lotte, who is turning 16, is to personally deliver an expensive birthday cake to her estranged husband’s apartment, where Lotte has fled. When a traffic jam drags hopelessly on and on, Grace abandons her car in the middle of the crowded road and sets out on her searing walk across London. “She will get there, whatever it takes, and she will make Lotte see . . . She will bring her daughter home.”

A second narrative strand, covering the prior few months, unspools some of the incidents that have alienated mother and daughter. It’s a chilling but fairly clichéd tale of a teenage girl being lured into what may be a dangerous sexual relationship, getting bullied on social media, cutting classes, and refusing to talk to her mother or school authorities. Grace muses on the irony that for all the foreign languages she’s learned, “she hadn’t banked on motherhood, on Lotte. On the gulf in language and meaning that has opened up between them.”

The third plotline goes back to 2002 to follow Grace’s marriage to Ben Kerr from its crazily cheerful beginning at a linguistics convention, through its painful disintegration over the next 17 years.

Of course, a novel can be good without having a likable protagonist. Indeed, some of the most memorable, fully realized characters in literature aren’t particularly nice people. (Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment comes to mind.)

Back in 2002, Grace was in fact amazing, a brilliant, sexy young woman fluent in French, Spanish, Japanese, Russian, and Dutch (plus English), who dove into the ocean to rescue a flailing surfer. Now, however, she has inexplicably become a disorganized mess who abruptly abandons her family at one point and doesn’t even try to keep up with either her freelance translation work or the dishes. The book seems to half-blame menopause, which is a cop-out; in any case, it can’t be the full explanation, because Grace’s collapse started years earlier. Around 50 pages from the end, the reader finally learns the devastating truth, but by then, it’s almost too late.

Adding to the annoyance is Grace’s hard-to-believe self-delusion in the second narrative strand, as the red flags about her daughter pile up: attendance warnings from her school, a note she finds in Lotte’s jacket pocket, creepy posts on Lotte’s Instagram account that Grace hacks.

Despite its flaws, this book ultimately succeeds in getting the reader to root for Grace. One reason: It’s about time a woman gave a smack in the face to a creep who repeatedly rubs up against her in the subway.