Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Wednesday, June 7, 2023: Maximum Shelf: Amazing Grace Adams

Henry Holt & Company: Amazing Grace Adams by Fran Littlewood

Henry Holt & Company: Amazing Grace Adams by Fran Littlewood

Henry Holt & Company: Amazing Grace Adams by Fran Littlewood

Henry Holt & Company: Amazing Grace Adams by Fran Littlewood

Amazing Grace Adams

by Fran Littlewood

Fran Littlewood's propulsive debut, Amazing Grace Adams, is a wildfire of a novel, wickedly hot and demanding attention. The book opens with 45-year-old Grace Adams stuck in traffic, desperate to escape the summer heat, her aging, overheating body, her fear of losing everything. Then Grace does the unthinkable, abandoning her car in traffic and embarking on an odyssey toward the one thing she hopes to salvage from her shattered life: her daughter, Lotte, on her 16th birthday. Some might call what follows the worst day of her life, but as the story of Grace and her broken family unfolds, it becomes clear that the events of this day have their roots planted many years earlier, and she has every right to the rage that spills out of her.

Littlewood builds the narrative in three distinct strands, each pulled to a precise tautness, and weaves them together into an unforgettable story about a woman who has had enough. Littlewood creates thin layers of narrative, moving between timelines with ease, revealing the worries and joys and griefs that make up a life. That opening scene is familiar and awful, full of leering men and car horns and roadwork and, always, the heat. It is hot outside, insufferably so, but Grace is also boiling internally, both emotionally and physically, due to perimenopause. The tension in the scene builds, and readers wonder why Grace "can't be late, not today, there's just no question" and what will happen after she whispers, "Deal with it" and walks away. Grace's triumph in that moment is undercut by the page turn, the abrupt shift from the present day to four months earlier, when Grace begins to understand her life may be unraveling. A few pages later, the timeline shifts again, taking readers back to 2002 and the moment when 28-year-old Grace meets Ben, a fellow linguist who will become her husband.

It's to Ben's home that Grace is headed on this fateful day, the flat in North London that he moved into after telling her he didn't want to be married any longer. It's where their daughter, Lotte, has retreated as well, and the reason for these estrangements will gradually unfold. Both relationships are written tenderly and with an attention to detail that renders both the past and the present rich and fully inhabited. But as the events that started four months earlier creep closer to the present, and readers learn more about Lotte's school absences and social media activity, and the secret relationship Lotte appears to be having, it becomes clear that Grace and Lotte are wrestling with more than typical adolescent attitude and mother-daughter disagreements. There is so much under the surface of this story; the way Littlewood teases out each vital detail is so skillful that even savvy readers will not expect the different turns the narrative takes.

Despite the drama of Grace's very bad day, it is the quiet moments of love and aging and family and loss that make this novel remarkable. When Grace texts her daughter, who is upstairs in her room--"because this is the way they do things now"--or when she watches Lotte dance and remembers "something she'd forgotten she knew. She feels it bodily and its force shocks her. That giddy up-and-out-of-herself high that comes from the music, the dancing, the intensity, the promise. It's like she can smell it, taste it, and why hasn't she realized before that it is gone?... It isn't that she's jealous, not exactly, because it fills her up that her daughter gets to feel this way. But there's a grief in her too, for this thing she hadn't known she'd lost." Littlewood gives voice to Grace's most ordinary thoughts and the often taboo feelings surrounding midlife, and in so doing, she has created what could be called Everywoman, but one with few restrictions. Grace gives herself permission to feel all the things a proper adult isn't supposed to express: desire, embarrassment, frustration, and, of course, anger.

Grace's anger is the oxygen to her flames, the thing that overruns her senses and turns her into the most frightening version of herself. When a kind older woman offers unexpected help, Grace admits, "And sometimes I have so much rage it scares me," and the woman responds, " 'That's not rage, darling. That's your fear, your grief exploded.' She pinches her fingers together, then springs them apart so that her empty hands are stars. 'You do the best you can. We all do.' " Like all of us, Grace is just doing the best she can. This unhinged day is a mess, a raging fire of emotion and impulsivity, but it is not the worst day of her life. There are worse things than this, and she has survived them, so there is hope. Even as Grace's world burns, readers will be left gasping, laughing through tears and hoping she will be the phoenix emerging triumphant from the ash. --Sara Beth West

Henry Holt & Company, $27.99, hardcover, 272p., 9781250857019, September 2023

Henry Holt & Company: Amazing Grace Adams by Fran Littlewood

Fran Littlewood: Fighting Back Against Impossible Standards

Fran Littlewood
(photo: Lucia Littlewood Begg)

Fran Littlewood's previous work as a journalist is evident in the attention to detail found in her debut novel, Amazing Grace Adams (coming September 5, 2023, from Holt), the story of the title character's terrible day and the events that brought her to this moment. Littlewood holds an MA in creative writing from Royal Holloway, University of London. She lives with her husband and daughters in north London.

You indicated that Amazing Grace Adams was inspired by the 1993 movie Falling Down. What made this the right time, 30 years later, to return to that particular narrative?

It's one of those ideas I'd always had kicking around. I think we've all had those days from hell, haven't we? And, of course, it's not acceptable as a woman, societally, to show your rage. So the juxtaposition of taking this film, which features the character [played by Michael Douglas] who goes crazy on this day and putting not just a woman, but a midlife woman, into that same situation--I love the dark humor in that. I love the improbability of it, but also that borderline feeling that many of us have been at one time or another this close to losing it.

How does her being a woman change things? What's allowed (or not) to Michael Douglas's character that wouldn't be for Grace?

I was always aware that there was a line there. I think an awful lot of women are living with a low boil of rage because of these pressures that we're under, and I think the shaming of female rage--the way it is completely unacceptable to show that you're angry whereas men are allowed--is just another thing that silences women. It's another tool of oppression.

It's true for all women and girls, but particularly at midlife. The huge domestic burden, the emotional labor, everything falls to us, and we're squeezed in the middle with, on the one hand, aging parents who might be getting increasingly frail, and then at the other end of the spectrum, if you have children, you're dealing with teenagers and the delightful challenges that can bring. So there are so many pressures, and then being held to these standards? Grace is 45, and she's supposed to look 25, and everything is supposed to be perfection, again for all women and girls, but it becomes really acute in the midlife space, as you might start feeling that you're failing some of the beauty currency, the ideal beauty standard.

I love all the nerdy language references, appropriate given that Grace and Ben are both linguists. How difficult was it to balance the action with these smaller but no less important elements?

It's those small elements that I love the most. One of the things I struggled with when trying to get published was plot--as in, understanding that you needed to have a plot! That was a hurdle I had to overcome because I read for those moments that chime, those small, relatable moments. In terms of the language aspect, there was so much to mine in that, and I feel it was woven into the love in the book. This theme emerged of heartbreaking miscommunication, as Grace comes to realize that despite the fact that she speaks five languages, she can't find the words to articulate her heartsickness and her grief over what's happened to her family. She can't find the language to communicate with her daughter. And then with the social media rabbit hole that Lotte disappears into, Grace is forced to learn a sixth language.

More than once, Grace just walks away. What is it about that act that feels so much like freedom for Grace: "Quietly, calmly, she has taken the bolt cutters to social convention. She has set herself free."

I think there is a parallel to be drawn with the midlife aspect. I think about the self-consciousness that comes on through the teenage years, the way we shrink ourselves into the spaces prescribed for us. In midlife, you start to care less about how you seem. There's a level of uprising, and I'm undecided as to whether it's just that we're so exhausted that you can't keep up the facade, or whether there's a return to that more authentic self before the years of self-consciousness and the social conditioning that tells girls and then women how we need to behave.

In middle age, we are aware that the public gaze, which we might translate as the male gaze, starts to disappear, and we can feel freed by that. But we can also be trapped in a different way.

There's so much conflict and contradiction in this midlife space. You don't want the male gaze. You don't want these people looking at you and wolf-whistling you in the streets. But then, when it goes, there are so many questions around desire and desirability and, again, what we've been told as women and as girls is that our currency, our worth above and beyond everything, is beauty and youth.

Simultaneously, social media makes Lotte's generation feel unable to not be seen. Grace is becoming less visible as she's aware of how visible Lotte has to be--what does that visibility and invisibility mean for them?

In many ways, Lotte and Grace are at two ends of this spectrum. There's a moment when Grace looks at Lotte, looks at her body that seems to have been sculpted by angels, and then looks at herself and sees that her lips have almost vanished. It's an ambush, the ambush of age, but the fact remains that Lotte wrestles with the same insecurities. It's the realization that there's no ideal moment, no matter the age. We never feel we're good enough. The standards are impossible, and we can't meet them. We all feel like we're failing all the time. As intelligent, thinking women, you're horrified at yourself that you think this, and it feels like a guilty secret. But of course we're fighting a societal narrative. We're fighting the conditioning that we've had since birth.

Issues of power and powerlessness are constant in Grace's story. In fact, it could be argued that the novel is an answer to the question: What happens when a person feels erased or powerless? Was that your original motivation in writing this story?

When I first started to talk about the book, I felt myself wanting to say, Grace is a kickass woman, she's a warrior, and that's it. But I have this voice saying, yes, but she's also a bit tired. She's also quite overwhelmed. She's also carrying the battle scars. She's a midlife heroine, but I knew that I wanted to write the nuance into that. I wanted to erase that feeling of being erased by writing a woman who says and does all the things that we only dream of doing. When she abandons her car, she looks as though she's finally lost control. In fact, it's the moment she starts to wrest back control of her life as she sets up on this quest, and she's going to try and put things right. --Sara Beth West

Powered by: Xtenit