A Subtle Grace, by Ellen Gable

A Subtle Grace front cover Nov2013



Kathleen O’Donovan gazed out her bedroom window, wondering if at the ripe old age of nineteen, she was doomed to spinsterhood, but soon she found herself the center of attraction, not all of it welcome. A Subtle Grace (O’Donovan Family #2) set in the late 1890s, is much more than a romance. The pen of Charles Dickens might have described the treatment of women, the poor and minorities by the villains of the day, villains not unlike those featured in modern tabloids. Gray’s Anatomy—not the TV series but the medical text—could serve as a reader’s companion as the story weaves through episodes with midwives and country doctors practicing their trades. The words from Colossians, “Wives be submissive to your husbands,” were interpreted in this novel by either a loving husband or a domineering rogue, with decidedly different outcomes.

A Subtle Grace shares the full human dimension of those “elegant” times, casting a new light on the once opulent mansions that remain in our older neighborhoods. The O’Donovan family projected affection, joy, warmth, concern, strength and harmony—in a word, love. As members of the upper-class, David, Caroline, their children and servants lived comfortably in Germantown, Pennsylvania, radiating an inviting grandness. The dialogue and formal behavior fit perfectly with the architecture of the times. The children’s respect for the authority of the parents, however, seemed unfortunately out of joint with today’s society—unfortunate that is, for today’s society.

Subtle hints of scandal trickled through the early chapters leading to a flood of unseemly behavior, discrimination, class-distinctions that mud-slide the plot down a darkening path toward suspense and terror, including depictions of violence. In stark contrast, the religious dimension stood against the sinister tide. Enthusiasm for the liturgy, conversions, the joy of confession, prayers, vocation to the priesthood were strong and unambiguous, and fit well with the story.

Even with such a large family and supporting characters, the author carefully developed each with his or her own conflicts, and loss ridden sub-plots, weaving through the other strands. The author supported the notion that happiness comes through discipline and respect, an ideal that deserves a greater attention in Catholic writing. For instance, I liked the choice of the name “David” for “Papa.” Like King David, his willingness to change his life, confess his sins to his children and church officials show him a strong and loving man. His tender love for his wife and his tough love for his sons show his depth of character.

I enjoyed reading A Subtle Grace and look forward to reading its prequel: In Name Only. I could see a TV series coming from these and future O’Donovan Family novels. Congratulations to Ellen Gable.
Gable, Ellen, A Subtle Grace. Pakenham, Ontario: Full Quiver Publishing. 2014.