Sunday, January 6, 2013

Years of Grace by Margaret Ayer Barnes

Years of Grace
by Margaret Ayer Barnes
Pulitzer Prize
4 stars - outstanding

The volume I received from the library was almost exactly like the one pictured. Delightful!

I was about 100 pages shy of finishing this book when it came due at the library. I was so happy when my renewal request was denied because there was actually a waiting list. Nice to see old books getting circulation. The librarian graciously told me that I could return it the next day without penalty so I made haste to finish it.

Years of Grace follows the life of Jane Ward from the age of 14 into her early fifties. 

I loved it. This is the kind of book that one should read every ten years or so because it captures so well how one's perspective changes as the decades roll by.

There are no pivotal events or crisis beyond what the average person might experience. Great! Most of us will live out our days experiencing things of great import to us, but of passing interest to the real world. But those events DO matter to us and Ms. Barnes captured the struggles and joys of living a "normal" life beautifully.

The writing is neither pretentious (I didn't need a dictionary) nor simplistic. 

Compressing four decades into just under 600 pages is a challenge. Ms. Barnes carries it off well. Sometimes days go by between chapters, sometimes months or years. But isn't that how "real" life works? Years melt into one another, highlighted by moments of clarity when one realizes that one has changed almost overnight both physically and emotionally.

I like to think that life happens in large chunks which I call Optimism, Disenchantment, Resignation, and (if you are lucky) Contentment. 

Here is a passage which captures the Disenchantment phase:

At thirty-six life was terrible, she thought, as she pulled on her rubber shoes. It had no dignity. It wasn't at all what you expected when you were younger. Youth wasn't dignified, of course, but it was simple, it was joyous, it was expectant. The things you thought about were important, no matter how inadequately one thought about them. But later you found yourself involved in a labyrinth of trifles. Worrying, ridiculous trifles.

Ah yes, those in between years when you no longer enjoy a dizzying array of options and you are overwhelmed by the day to day treadmill of just getting on with things. 

Miss Thomas had claimed it was a man-made world. If so, men had certainly made it with a curious disregard of their own comfort and convenience. How terrible to have to be the first vice-president of a bank and work eight hours a day for forty years at a mahogany desk in the executive offices of the Midland Loan and Trust Company and never have more than a three weeks' holiday!

But Jane survives her thirties. She is married, has children, good times and bad. She deals with temptations to forgo her humdrum life and the conflicting feelings associated with watching the world change around her and trying to decide how best to evolve (if at all). 

And there are big changes. The story is set primarily in Chicago which grows from a neighborly city into a warren of apartments alternated with smoke spewing factories. Does one cling to the fanciful image of the city as it once was? Remove oneself from the environment? Or remain and change with the times? A little of each as it turns out.

Finally, as always, the reader observes that shock and dismay over the younger generation is a problem intrinsic to the human condition. I have often discussed the failings of our current crop of youth with my peers. But lately I curb my denunciations. Are their ways wrong or bad or just different? I tend to think "different" and strive to admit when I am choosing to cling to my familiar ways (and that's OK) rather than submerge myself in new things. But one must move forward, and sampling the gifts of the next generation is important. No, I don't need to buy those annoying low slung pants which are all the fashion, but I have found my adventures in social media (resisted for years) to be, for the most part, interesting.

I loved this remark towards the end of the book when Jane and her friend are despairing over the behavior Jane's adult children.

'I hate to think of what's before you, Jane,' said Agnes. 'But remember one thing - there can't be understanding between two generations. I'm convinced of that. Love, Jane, and sympathy, but never understanding. We must take our children's ideas on faith. We can never make them our own. Remember that and save yourself from unhappiness.'



  1. Jane's friend's comment is too true for words! This sounds like a wonderful book; I'm off to look for it now.

  2. I saw "Grace" in the title and "Margaret" in the author's name and immediately thought it must be "Alias Grace" by Margaret Atwood, even though her name is much shorter and the book covers look less than nothing alike, to put it mildly. Perhaps I haven't had enough coffee ...