Author: Kim Liggett
Release Date: October 8, 2019
This just in: a good concept alone does not make a good book. Execution matters, and in this regard, The Grace Year fell flat. When I first heard about this book, pitched as Handmaid’s Tale meets Lord of the Flies, I was pretty damn excited. And when I got approved for it on NetGalley, I was absolutely thrilled. The start of the book had me enthralled. And then…it all fell apart.
The premise of this book is pretty simple. In some messed-up society, the patriarchy is oppressive. Wives are chosen during a formal ceremony in which they have no say, all punishments are physical and public, and the body parts of dead girls are sold secretly for their alleged magical/medicinal properties. Women are told that they have dangerous magic that they develop in their teens, and that they need to get rid of that magic before they can marry their husbands. Thus, every year, after some of them are chosen by their future husbands, all the sixteen-year-old girls are taken to a remote island camp where they are left to their own devices for a full year, known as their Grace Year, allegedly to burn through all their “magic” so they can return “purified.” When Tierney leaves with her Grace Year’s cohort, she realizes what savagery the island brings out in the girls, and she begins to seriously question everything about her society’s priorities and beliefs.
At first glance, that’s such a good concept, right? The first quarter of this book fell right into that storyline, and it was stellar. There were deaths. There was blood and backstabbing. There were high stakes and divisions quickly drawn between cliques of girls. It was gritty and beautiful in its brutality.
And at the start, I loved the protagonist. Tierney is a rebellious girl with exactly zero desire to get married. While other 30-ish girls in her year vie for the hands of just twelve eligible bachelors, she spends her time with her best friend Michael–who she knows will be engaged to the beautiful and popular Kiersten because of how powerful his family is–running about, climbing trees, and generally refusing to be a nice young lady. When she and the girls arrive on the island for their Grace Year, as the others devolve into chaos and drama, she throws her survival skills into action, building rain barrels and calculating ways to ration food. She reminded me a bit of Katniss from The Hunger Games, only instead of trying to feed her family, she is trying to maintain a sense of independence and self in a community that wants her to become a submissive nobody. She was the sort of kickass girl I wanted to root for, whip-smart and acting from logic, not emotions. A bit of an outsider, sometimes a loner, but not without her charm, and certainly full of kindness and sympathy when needed.
But, after a little time on the island, things change. Without spoiling too much, suffice to say a new character shows up, and with the arrival of this character, the plot swiftly falls apart. The ordinarily fierce Tierney suddenly ends up pulling a significant insta-love move on someone she thoroughly hated until that person’s motives proved kind. I can’t stand insta-love as it is, but it is a thousand times worse when it comes from a character who always seemed so strong and reasonable, and when that character has another, far more compatible love interest as well. And as a whole, the story becomes less about female empowerment and more about choosing your breed of domesticity, if that makes sense. It rubbed me the wrong way.
I will say, the book does a nice job of resolving the sort-of love triangle, without feeling too much like a cop-out. YA novels so frequently have unhealthy or disappointing depictions of love, but by the end, The Grace Year does manage to take a more nuanced feminist stance on all forms of love that is good for all parties involved.
One of my biggest annoyances was that,although the society depicted was fascinating, it didn’t feel fully realized. There was never really an explanation given for how things got to be the way they were. Because the town was very low-tech–no cars or TVs or even electricity that I can recall–it was hard to tell whether this was meant to be a dystopia, an isolated present-day village, something in the past, or something in a different world altogether. There is only one brief part that discusses the world beyond their society, and it is in minimal detail, so you can’t even tell what relationship they have with the outside world. Did they retreat from society? Do others respect them? Avoid them? Do the same thing as them? There was so much potential to build this world up, flesh it out, but instead the story let itself exist in a vacuum, which somewhat deadened the punch it could have packed.
A brief formatting note: for those of you who like your reading to be broken nicely into chapters, this one will be challenging. The book is divided into just five parts, each one shorter than the one before: one for each season of the Grace Year, and one for what happens when the girls return home at the year’s conclusion. While there are some spaces for whenever the story shifts in time or topic, there are not formal chapter designations beyond the aforementioned five. I guess it makes this a good binge read? But it also makes it hard to find a good stopping point when needed.
Speaking of those seasons, I have to say, the pacing in the book was weird. There were parts that felt way too long (including a lot with that aforementioned character who derails the plot), and there were others that I desperately wanted to see more of (like the politics of the girls in the camp, especially near the end of the year). Sometimes it felt very character-driven, and I loved the dynamics between all the girls, especially the clashes between Tierney and Kiersten, and the female friendships with side characters like Gertie. Others, it felt like the author realized the story wasn’t going anywhere, so she suddenly threw in a bunch of twists and betrayals and complications. Both pieces were good on their own, but they didn’t integrate very well with each other.
Finally, again not wanting to give much away: the ending felt too easy. Suddenly, you get to the last section and everything ties up with a neat little bow. All the mysteries are solved. People start to do some specific good things that you’ve spent the whole book waiting for them to do. It isn’t a happily-ever-after, but after the brutality of the early chapters, the end is a little too simple and a little too…smooth. It wasn’t bad. It was just weird.
Final random notes:
– There was a hint of casual LGBTQ+ rep from a side character, which made me happy and definitely helped the book feel a bit more realistic.
– I got a bit annoyed…at times…just how frequently Tierney’s thoughts…had ellipses. Sometimes…I…understood why it was done stylistically…but others…it was not as good. And then the rambling would be interspersed with pity, profound statements that I’m sure will be all over every review of this book. Some were pretty good, like this one:
“That’s the problem with letting the light in–after it’s been taken away from you, it feels even darker than it was before.”
Others, like this, just made me wince:
“They can call it magic. I can call it madness. But one thing is certain. There is no grace here.”
Basically, this whole novel is the literary equivalent of someone taking a great cake recipe, then throwing in a bunch of other ingredients, swapping almond flour for the real stuff, throwing raisins in where they don’t belong, and not mixing it evenly. I try it because it sounds good, but it isn’t as good as I had hoped, and I leave with a bad taste in my mouth. I have no idea where that metaphor came from, but it feels right.
Thank you to St. Martin’s for providing me with an eARC of this book through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.