As the weather turns warmer and the number of books released by publishers continues to gush forth, the total plot (and sometimes writing level) of those books seems to slow to a trickle. Unless it’s a murder mystery, summer beach reading can be awfully light on substance, and character development can be thin all around. So it’s a pleasant surprise that Restoring Grace, while sticking to the rules of chick lit, proves that appealing characters and a charmingly cozy writing style can make a reader easily forgive even the most predictable and wafer thin of stories.
The novel (by British writer Katie Fforde) deals superficially with picture restoration and more with the "restoration" to life of its main character, Grace Soudley, a newly divorced woman discovering her independence and, ah, true love. Yes, when you put it like that, the metaphor seems terribly heavy handed, and it does feel that way at book’s end. But up until then, Fforde’s sweetly engaging characters and witty way with dialogue wraps you in a cocoon of tea-and-scones-with-jam pleasantness.
Grace was left with nothing from her divorce from the older, staid Edward but a gorgeous yet decaying English manor and enough money to fix the roof (the dry rot in the rest of the place is another matter). She finds an unexpected friend in Ellie Summers, a young artist who has left her boyfriend and is expecting a baby. Along with Grace’s ex-step-daughter, the typically sullen teenage Demi, Grace and Ellie end up making the manor house a home (if a somewhat leaky, drafty home). Grace also unexpectedly (well, for unexpected for her, perfectly predictable for the reader) finds love with her ruggedly charming Irish neighbor Flynn.
Although Grace has a surfeit of comradeship, she’s lacking in funds, so when she discovers ancient and potentially valuable paintings hidden behind the curtains in the dining room, she and Ellie hatch a plan to have the paintings restored to see just how much they can get for them. Yes, the restoration-of-the-soul theme sounds painfully obvious in a plot summary, but luckily it goes down much easier in Fforde’s narrative. She people’s the book with enough interesting minor characters with curious British names, like Grace’s prickly sister Allegra and Demi’s bullying yet absent mother Hermia, that the book would make a fun BBC film. Fforde also has the romance writer’s touch with creating male characters; both Flynn and Ellie’s potential swain, picture restorer Ran (the nickname is ever so much sexier than his given name of Randolph), are charming, rugged-yet-sensitive, handsome-and-sexy-once-you-get-to-know-them, and thoroughly unbelievable except in the cozily insulated world of the novel.
Sheltered Grace and free spirit Ellie are also enjoyable characters to spend time with, whether giving a wine tasting party to raise funds or making endless pots of tea and having chats in the kitchen, and that’s why it’s a bit of a disappointment that Fforde ends the story in such a rush, quickly tying up the few loose ends and pairing people off. But while the novel lasts, it’s a sweetly funny tale that will have you craving a cup of Darjeeling to sip while perched on your beach chair.
by Katie Fforde
Published by St. Martin’s Press, $24.95 in hardcover