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  • Written by Elizabeth Nunez
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A Novel

Written by Elizabeth NunezAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Elizabeth Nunez

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On Sale: December 18, 2008
Pages: 352 | ISBN: 978-0-307-48557-1
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Justin Peters is a Harvard-educated professor of British and classic literature who reads Shakespeare to his four-year-old daughter, Giselle. A native of Trinidad and the product of a strict, English-style education, Justin and his focus on the works of “Dead White Men” receive little professional respect at the public Brooklyn college where he teaches. But whatever troubles he might have at work are eclipsed when he realizes his wife, Sally, has begun to pull away from him, both physically and emotionally.

Harlem-born Sally Peters, a mother on the verge of turning forty, is a primary school teacher who believes that joy is a learned skill, and that it takes strength to be happy. After a life of tragic losses, Sally thought she had finally found that strength when she met Justin.

But now, Sally wants something more. And Justin is angered by her uncertainty about their life and frightened by the thought that perhaps Sally never stopped loving the ex-boyfriend for whom she wrote fierce poems. Is he, Justin wonders, responsible for helping Sally find meaning in her life—a life that seems to him most fortunate? If Sally and Justin’s union is to survive, both must face the crippling echoes of their own pasts before those memories forever cloud and alter their future.

Set in a snow-covered Brooklyn, Grace is a thoughtful and lovely meditation on trust, redemption, and family. Elizabeth Nunez’s delicate prose brings the struggles, aches, and tender moments of this contemporary urban love story into vivid focus.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

He wakes up one morning tracing letters in his head: the serpentine curl of the S in Sally, the rigid lines of the N in no, shimmering in capital, straight up, straight down, then up again. Capital S, capital N. Words appear before him as in a mirage and then become concrete, the letters sharp and defined. Sally does Not love me. Sight reaches sound and sound his tongue. He says the words aloud: Sally does Not love me.

It is a posture of indifference he affects. He does not want to lose her. He is afraid, and this fear feeds his delusion that can devalue her, make her unimportant to him. Sally does not love me, he repeats in his head, and then he adds, Justin does not care.

It is a dismal morning in March, the beginning of the month, the beginning of the first year of a new millennium, 2001, and she has come in that proverbial way, like a lion, blowing chilly winds the day before across the city that by night were leaden with snow. In the bleary light of this early dawn, Justin fixes his eyes on the oak tree outside his window, standing stoic, rigid against the wind that has long stripped it bare of leaves and threatens its branches. In the cups they form with the trunk, the snow is thick. Dense.

This tree is too big for this too-small city garden in Brooklyn, he thinks, both he and it in the wrong place: it there, he here. In the right climate for an oak tree, but not in this garden. In the right house for him, but not in this marriage.

Outside it is quiet, still like the dead. Inside, the scuttle of feet on the hardwood floor beneath him. She is up. Already in the dining room. Five steps, and in the kitchen. He closes his eyes and makes a bet with himself: He will hear the latch on the canister next, the place where she keeps her teas. Today, perhaps, Celestial Awakenings. He cannot be sure. Bounteous Sunlight, Early Sunrise, Heavenly Mornings: her panacea, her simple-minded answer to life’s disturbing questions.

But the name of the tea is not part of his bet. His bet is that she will open the green canister, take out a bag of herbal tea, reach in the cupboard for a blue mug with little white flowers, fill the red kettle with water, turn on the fire, and sit with her face to the sun, planning her day while the water boils.

Primary colors: the green on the canister, the deep blues and whites on the mug, the red on the kettle, the yellow of her bathrobe. These are the colors that make Sally feel safe. A primary school teacher, she teaches these colors to the children in her class. Perhaps it is the color red she thinks of now, her lesson for the day. Perhaps the red kettle, whistling now, its shrill call piercing the silence, the signal he has been waiting for. His bet.

The herbal tea is to keep her calm, to chase away yesterday’s worries: the bad news on TV last night, bills to be paid, the rash on Giselle’s ankle. Giselle is their four-year-old daughter.

“Do you think she got it at the baby-sitter’s?” she asked him last night.

“I don’t think there’s anything to be worried about.”

“All the same.” She rubbed calamine lotion on their daughter’s tiny ankle. “You don’t have to teach at the college tomorrow. Maybe she should stay home with you. If it gets any worse, you can take her to the doctor.”

“It’s a little rash, Sally. All children get a little rash.”

“It’s a rash. It does not matter if it is little or not.”

“These things are normal for a child her age.”

But little things like that worried Sally. Not the big things. Not that she did not love him when she married him. Not that she does not love him now. Not that he does not care.

“A rash is no reason to take her to the doctor,” he said.

“Nothing bothers you, right?” Her face was tight with anger. “I wish I could be so casual.”

He did not want a fight with her, not in front of their daughter. “Giselle can stay home with me,” he said.

At night, in their bed, she asked, her voice soothing then: “Are you sure?”

The irritation he felt hours ago had not dissipated. “What is it you want, Sally? I said she can stay home with me tomorrow.”

“Won’t that be a problem for you? I mean, with your papers to grade?”

“Giselle is never a problem for me.”

That was how they ended the night, his words thickening the air between them, she turning on the bed without saying good night, he closing his book, switching off the light on his night stand, and brooding: Sally does Not love me hovering in the dark recesses of his brain, not yet a shimmering mirage.

But he knows this morning she wants to be happy. When the little children file into her classroom, she wants the smile on her face to be bright. She wants no furrows on her forehead, no darkness around her eyes. It is to be a Heavenly Morning, a Celestial Awakening.

“Good morning, children.”

She will sing out the words, her eyes trained to exude sunshine.

“Good morning, Mrs. Peters.”

Mrs. Peters is happy. The children are happy. The children are happy because Mrs. Peters is happy.

This has become the essence of Sally’s philosophy. Happiness is learned, she says. It is a skill like any other skill. Bad things come when they come. They cannot be stopped. I teach my children how to be happy. I show them how to forget the bad things.

She made this discovery, she told him, by accident, during a very bad time in her life. The man she loved had been murdered. She was driving home one day, tears almost blinding her, when graffiti on a wall caught her eyes. Someone had scrawled: It takes strength to be happy. “Those words changed my life,” she said.

Which is why, lying on his bed this morning, Justin Peters knows that something is very wrong with his wife. It is not working, this skill she has taught herself. For some time now he has heard the heaviness in her voice, seen the darkness under her eyes. She is hiding something. He is certain of it.

A week ago she left the house before dawn. To prepare for her class trip, she said. She would be taking the kindergarten class to the Bronx Zoo. Ten boys, nine girls. Four parents would accompany them. She wanted to be in the school early, to get everything in order. Justin agreed to take Giselle to the baby-sitter’s and to pick her up after his classes.

Not to worry, he said. He had everything under control. He would get pizza for dinner.

When she came to say good-bye that morning, it was obvious: neither Celestial Awakenings nor Heavenly Mornings had worked its magic. The circles under her eyes were dark, the lines around her mouth stiff.

Now, as he tries to reconstruct that morning, he cannot remember if he asked about the circles, but he remembers that she offered an explanation.

“I always get so worried before a trip. It’s such a responsibility. The children are so young.”

“But parents will be there.”

“Four children for each adult,” she said. “Though not quite.”

“That seems more than enough.”

“I’d be worried if Giselle were on a class trip,” she said.

“Giselle is not in school.”

“I mean when she goes to kindergarten. I can’t imagine what I would do without Giselle. She is my life.”

He believes now that at that moment she was thinking of the consequences of the discovery of her secret. She is my life. She said it as if there were a real possibility that something could happen and Giselle could be out of her life, that she could lose her. Then, that morning, he wanted to reassure her. He kissed her and held her to his chest. “Giselle will always be with you, Sally,” he said.

Now he lies in his bed and recalls that she came home late that evening. When she slid next to him on the couch, she was trembling.

“It was terrible,” she said. “One of the children got sick at lunch. She was vomiting and vomiting. Something she ate. I thought she would never stop.”

He put his arm around her and she curled into him.

“I took her to the hospital.”

“Didn’t you call her parents?”

“Her mother came.”

“She couldn’t get off from work, huh?” Even when he said it, he knew he was covering for her. He had already made a mental calculation. If the child got sick at lunchtime and the mother came immediately, as any mother would, Sally would not have been needed and there would have been no reason for her to be home so late.

Why had he helped her? Was it fear? Was it because he was not yet ready to face the truth of his suspicions? For more than month she had turned away from him in bed, and when she consented, their lovemaking was passionless. She went through the motions, but she wanted to be done. “Come,” she said, she urged him on. She wanted it to end.

Then there were the phone calls. Five when the caller hung up. Three times in the last month when she abruptly ended her conversation on the phone as he entered the room. All the signs were there that something, someone, was pulling her away from him. And yet that day he supplied her with an excuse.

“They’re so helpless when they get sick,” she said. “The little girl was so weak, she couldn’t stand up. I had to lift her. They need their mothers when they are so young.”

He connects that statement and the one she made earlier that morning and finds himself thinking the impossible: If you do not love me, Sally, Giselle will not always be with you.

She comes in the bedroom and hands him his coffee. “Are you sure you’ll be okay with Giselle?”

“Haven’t I always been okay with Giselle?”

“You know what I mean. You have work to do.”

“I will take her to the park,” he says. “When we come back, she’ll be sleepy and when she sleeps, I’ll correct my papers.”

“I’ll get her ready,” she says.

“You don’t have to. Let her sleep late. I’ll dress her.”

She hesitates. “I may come home late this evening,” she says, and walks into the bathroom.

She cannot be this cunning, he thinks. It is she who suggested that Giselle remain with him today. It is he who said Giselle’s rash wasn’t all that bad. But in the end, it is he, not she, who is insisting that Giselle stay at home.

She wants to be free, he thinks. She does not want to be encumbered. Not by a child, not by their daughter. Not by an obligation that would have her interrupt whatever she is doing, with whomever she is doing it, in the late afternoon.

Before she leaves, she kisses the sleeping Giselle. She does not kiss him.

“Is there something you want to tell me, Sally?” He has come downstairs. She has her hands on the doorknob, but he is unable to let her leave without asking the question.

She turns. “We’ll talk,” she says. “When I get home.”


From the Hardcover edition.
Elizabeth Nunez|Author Q&A

About Elizabeth Nunez

Elizabeth Nunez - Grace

Photo © Akeem Photos

Elizabeth Nunez is the author of four novels, including Bruised Hibiscus, winner of an American Book Award. She lives in Amityville, New York.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Elizabeth Nunez

Q: Elizabeth, you are a professor and you teach at an urban public college in New York. In Grace Justin Peters is a professor and he teaches at an urban public college. Is Justin Peters you?

EN: Well, in the first place, Justin is a man. But, yes, there are some similarities between my life and Justin’s experiences.

Q: But you decided to tell this story from the point of view of a man. Why?

EN: I was curious. I am always curious about lives that are different from mine. Yes, there are some experiences I share with Justin Peters, but I have experienced life as a woman, not as a man, and I was curious to find out how a man would react. This is not the first time I have written a novel from the point of view of a man. My previous novel, Discretion, is told in the first person, from the point of view of a man. It is a novel about adultery, and, of course, as a woman who was once a wife, I have very strong feelings about husbands who cheat on their wives. It was uncharted territory for me to get into the mind of a man who commits adultery. I found the experience interesting and challenging. I learned a lot, so I thought I’d try it again. Of course, Grace is not about a man who commits adultery. In fact, it is the man who suspects his wife is having an affair. For me the excitement in writing comes from all that I learn and discover in the process of writing.

Q: You say that there are similarities between your life and Justin Peters’s life. What was there to discover?

EN: When I began writing this novel, I didn’t know what there was to discover. That’s the wonderful part about writing. You find yourself in places where you had not planned to go and you discover things you did not know before, even things you did not know you wanted to know. All I was aware of as I began to write Grace was that I wanted to tell a story about a marriage in trouble. I knew the husband was going to be a professor, who though he has a Ph.D. from Harvard, (my Ph.D. is not from Harvard) teaches at an urban public college. Some of the issues that Justin deals with at that college are issues I have had to deal with: whether it makes sense to teach the so-called great books to students who must confront the daily challenges of survival in a city; whether an academic, who has the responsibility of transmitting knowledge, should also be willing to deal with a student ’s emotional problems.

Q: Should he or she? What is a professor’s responsibility when she is faced with a student who is obviously depressed, like Mark Sandler in Grace, for example?

EN: That’s just the point. I wasn’t sure of the answer to that question. I mean I have had students, one student in particular, who I knew had emotional problems. He was a student very much like Mark Sandler. He called me one day to tell me that he was videotaping himself in a mirror. He sounded very sad, suicidal even.

Q: What did you do?

EN: What I did is not important here. The point for me in Grace was: What would Justin Peters do? The situation for Justin is complicated by the fact that he is having problems of his own. He is afraid that his marriage is falling apart. He is worried about the future of his four-year-old daughter. I mean, professors are people too. They have feelings; they have wor­ries. How do you put aside your problems to deal with the challenging task of motivating students to get interested in learning, particularly when they do not see the value of the subject you are teaching.

Q: And what subject is that?


EN: Literature. Students come to college to earn a degree so that they can get a job and make money. They don’t see literature as advancing their marketability. But that’s another topic. I was talking about the professor who has to be an entertainer in the classroom as well as a teacher, while coping with her own personal problems. Then the professor notices that there is a student in her class who is obviously in emotional pain. What does she do? What does Justin Peters do?

Q: Just a minute, Elizabeth, I thought you said you had set out to write a novel about a marriage in trouble.

EN: That’s just it. What a writer sets out to do may not be what she ends up doing. Once Justin Peters began to take shape and come into his own, I had to deal with his whole life, not part of his life. So the story of his marriage to Sally runs alongside the story of his life as a professor. Justin teaches literature. Here, I want to touch for a moment on the point I made earlier about students not seeing the relevance of literature to their marketability. Literature allows us to explore questions about the human condition and the human dilemma in a relatively safe space. Justin Peters is teaching Shakespeare ’s Hamlet at a time when he is convinced that his wife is having an affair. What does he do? Should he act or not act? In Discretion, the novel I wrote before Grace, the wife is faced with the same question. She decides not to act. She chooses to pretend that her husband is not having an affair. Many of my readers think that the wife in Discretion made the right decision, for, in the end, she kept her husband.

Q: I notice that the students in Grace have different opinions as to what Hamlet should do.

EN: Yes. Actually, that is what is so exciting about teaching at a public college.

Q: Where do you teach?

EN: At Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York. The students in Justin’s class give the answers that my students give. For some students, Hamlet is a coward for hesitating to take revenge. After all, he is pretty certain that his uncle, who is now married to his mother, murdered his father. For other students, especially my religious students, Hamlet is correct to hesitate. They quote to me from the Bible: Vengeance is mine . . . saith the Lord. Then there was that one student. He is the student who says to Justin Peters that he works as a prison guard at Riker’s Island. I still remember that day when he stood up in my class and warned the other students about the perils of acting on passion.

Q: Elizabeth, it seems to me that you are saying that Justin’s story is very much based on your life.

EN: In some ways. But I didn’t know the answer to the question I posed. I mean, I have read Hamlet many times, but I never before noticed the curious juxtaposition of Hamlet ’s conclusion that he would leave his decision to God and the stage directions that follow. Hamlet says: "Let be." What follows are all the instruments that would lead to his death and the death of almost all the main characters. Now, I was faced with another question: Are they right, those who relinquish their future to the will of God? Justin must answer this question as it relates to his marriage. At a point in the novel, Justin has done all he knows how to do to save his marriage. Yet he feels he is still losing Sally. What next is there for him to do?

Q: Pray?

EN: Justin describes himself as an apostate. He has become an apostate because he believes that when he was a boy his prayers to have his parents return to him were unanswered.

Q: But he does pray. What makes him change his mind?

EN: Literature.

Q: Explain.

EN: Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. Again, I would not have made this connection if I were not writing this novel. I’ll tell you what happened to me. I was flying back to New York from Paris. The plane took off. As you know, we have to cross the Atlantic to get to New York, so the ascent was quite steep. I was sitting at a window near the wings of the plane and I could hear this grinding sound. The third time I heard it, I looked outside. Sure enough the flaps on the wings of the plane were still open and were having a hard time closing. The fourth time the grinding noise came, the pilot announced what I had feared. He told us that he had to dump all the fuel before we could return to Paris. In those fifteen minutes, as we circled in the air and I watched the fuel jetting out of the wings, it struck me that it would be only by the grace of God that we would be saved, that there was nothing anyone in the plane could do, in spite of their brilliance and knowledge, to save us. I may have been wrong, but that was what I thought. Then, teaching Oedipus Rex, I understood in a way I had not done before that Oedipus’s hubris was his total reliance on reason, his refusal to accept that human intelligence is limited. I mean, to what degree can we change our apparent destiny? So Justin has reached the same place where I was on that plane. He must pray.
Q: And his prayers are answered?

EN: He has no assurance that his prayers will be answered. They are answered because he is blessed with grace.

Q: Is that the meaning of the title of your novel?

EN: Grace is a gift. Like a gift, it comes to us whether we deserve it or not. It is the giver’s decision that we will get it.

Q: How do Mark Sandler’s emotional problems fit into this story of Justin’s troubled marriage?

EN: Justin learns about another definition of grace. Though Mark has problems of his own, he has the grace to care about Justin. I give several definitions of grace in the front of the novel. The first is that grace is a disposition to be generous or helpful.

Q: I wonder if you would talk about another resemblance between you and Justin Peters. Both of you are immigrants from Trinidad, and I believe you were also married to an African American. Is there a special reason that you gave Justin this background?

EN: Fortunately for me, my parents were not among those many parents who had to make the difficult decision of leaving their children behind as they sought work in the U.S. True, I was married to an African American. Our problems were not the same as Justin and Sally’s. However, I am very concerned about the relationship between immigrants of color and African Americans. I think too many immigrants forget that our pres­ence here is directly related to the civil rights struggle. The single barrier to the immigration of people of color to the U.S. was the country-of-origin quota system. That was struck down one year after the passing of the Civil Rights Act. You see, there was a connection. Sally and Justin are aware of the connection. How should appreciation, if not gratitude, be expressed given this history?

Q: Finally, I want to talk a little bit about your life as a writer. When did you first realize that you wanted to be a writer?

EN: My family has a running joke about me. They say that you should divide what I say in half. They don’t call me a liar, but they take all I say with a grain of salt. I suppose they are right to do so. Ever since I was a very young child, l always found myself adding color to the realities around me. I suppose that was one indication that I would be a writer. My imagination was always in overdrive. Even when I made an effort, I would still end up adding this or that to a factual story I was telling, I guess to make it more exciting. When I was around seven, a story I wrote was published in the "Tiny Tots" section of the local newspaper, so you could say I was bitten by the writing bug very early in my life. And I loved to read. I would get punished for reading, because I would always get lost in a book when I should be doing some chore.

Q: Which brings me to the question: Who are your favorite writers?

EN: Any writer of a good book. My taste in literature is eclectic. My criteria are beautiful language, vivid imagery, interesting characters, good story, and ideas to ponder about.

Q: Who are you reading lately?

EN: Recently, I reread all of Jane Austen’s novels. Ian McEwan and Percival Everett make me think. And I love the music Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez make with language.

Q: What do you want to accomplish with your novels?


EN: I want to achieve what any good book does for me. I want to entertain my readers, but I want to engage them in exploring the big questions about the human condition and the human dilemma, the questions that trouble me. I guess, ultimately, that is why I write: I am pursuing answers to questions that I find difficult to answer: What does it mean to be one ’s brother’s keeper. That’s the question that concerned me in Grace. How far should one go to help another in need?

Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. At the beginning ofthe novel Justin comes to the conclusion that his wife, Sally, does not love him. What evidence does he have to lead him to this conclusion? Is he justified? Would you say that his response is a typically male one, or would a woman, given the same evidence, react in a similar way?

2. Sally tells Justin that she is not happy and she knows he is not happy either. In what ways do men and women differ in how they confront, or cope with, emotional problems?

3. What does Sally mean when she says she wants space? How does Justin interpret her expressed need?

4. Justin claims that “love is not something you try to do.” He says to Sally, “Either you love me or you don’t. Either you want to be with me or you don’t.” Is he right, or does sustaining love require effort?

5. To what extent are we responsible for the happiness of others? Justin knows that his wife is unhappy. Is he responsible for making her happy or is she responsible for her own happiness?

6. Justin thinks that Sally should be happy because they have a comfortable life. Are material comforts sufficient to make us happy? Why or why not?

7. Justin has little respect for the current trends in self-help books and television talk shows where people air their difficulties and are given advice. For one, he thinks that, paradoxically, such trends encourage people to be dissatisfied with their lives. He also contends that these programs discourage people from doing the hard work necessary to cope with difficulties by deluding them into thinking that problems can be solved with quick-fixes. Do you agree with him?

8. It is said that the difference between a contribution and a commitment is the difference between what a hen and a pig provide for breakfast. Given this context, how would you define the commitment required to make a marriage work? What are the limits of such commitment?

9. Justin and Sally disagree on whether or not parents should stay together for the sake of the children. What are their positions? With whom do you most agree and why?

10. Sally is American; Justin is Trinidadian. To what extent has their marriage been made more difficult because they come from different cultural backgrounds? Can people who do not share the same cultural, social, religious, racial, and ethnic backgrounds, or who differ greatly in age, have successful marriages?

11. Justin is a professor at an inner-city college where most of the students are either African American or Caribbean. His colleagues argue that students need to be informed about their own cultural heritage; the works of dead white men are irrelevant to their lives. Justin claims that the works of dead white men are part of the human heritage and so belong to the heritage of his students. He says that a good book, regardless of the ethnicity of the writer, is relevant to the lives of readers, regardless of their ethnicity. Who is right, Justin or his coleagues?

12. Justin is considered a conservative at his college. His colleague Lloyd Banks thinks that such a description is far too kind. He calls Justin a traitor to the progress of peoples of the black diaspora, yet he and Justin find common ground on their posi­tion on reparation. What is that position? What do they hope to achieve by taking this position?

13. Shakespeare ’s Hamlet seems to influence the decisions Justin makes regarding his relationship with his wife. He is particularly affected by his students’ critique of Hamlet’s behavior. What do his students say and what do they lead Justin to do?

14. What is the tension between Hamlet’s conclusion “Let be,” and the stage directions that follow? How is this tension reflected in the decisions Justin makes?

15. There are two plots in this novel, the main plot being the relationship between Justin, the husband, and Sally, his wife, and the subplot the relationship between Justin, the professor, and Mark Sandler, his student. What do these two plots say about the responsibility we have for each other, particularly when we are in a position of leadership?

16. At the end ofthe novel, as he searches for answers to save his marriage, Justin draws on Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and he is rewarded by grace. What lesson does he learn from Oedipus Rex? How is grace deÞned, and why is it necessary?


  • Grace by Elizabeth Nunez
  • February 28, 2006
  • Fiction
  • Ballantine Books
  • $13.95
  • 9780345455345

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