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Circle of Grace

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"Thirty years ago, Grace Benedict and her college roommates - Liz, Tess, and lovely Lovey - made a solemn vow: to hold on to their friendship, to support one another, to keep in touch through a circle journal that would make the rounds among them. And they promised always to tell one another the truth." "For three decades that journal has been circulating, carrying stories of Liz's social justice activism in Atlanta and D.C.; of Tess's fulfilling career and perfect home life; of Lovey's dream marriage to a wealthy and powerful former pro football ...
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Circle of Grace

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"Thirty years ago, Grace Benedict and her college roommates - Liz, Tess, and lovely Lovey - made a solemn vow: to hold on to their friendship, to support one another, to keep in touch through a circle journal that would make the rounds among them. And they promised always to tell one another the truth." "For three decades that journal has been circulating, carrying stories of Liz's social justice activism in Atlanta and D.C.; of Tess's fulfilling career and perfect home life; of Lovey's dream marriage to a wealthy and powerful former pro football player." "But what is Grace to say? Her friends seem so happy and successful. She can't bear to tell them how her life has spiraled downward since college, and she can't bring herself to be honest about the dismal realities and bitter memories she faces every day." "She never intends to deceive them - not initially, anyway. She simply embellishes the truth a little, presents her life as a bit more respectable than it really is. But over the years one exaggeration leads to another, and the fiction grows..." "Until she discovers that she's going to die." Alone and desolate and with little left to lose, Grace determines to take the risk of a lifetime, to reach out to Liz and Tess and Lovey again. And when they reunite, her final battle becomes their struggle as well - a quest for trust, honesty, and enduring emotional connection.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In the same vein as her novel The Blue Bottle Club, Stokes again presents a story of four women friends and the twists and turns their lives take. The women-Amanda "Lovey" Love, Grace Benedict, Liz Chandler and Tess Riley-are thrown together in a college philosophy course, charged with answering the question, "What is truth?" In their diversity (the moralist, the activist, the cheerleader, the aspiring author) they forge a close friendship. Stokes's books usually have a concrete motif of sorts (The Amber Photograph; The Treasure Box; The Wishing Jar; The Memory Book), and in this novel the object is a "circle journal" that the women pass around and contribute to for 30 years. However, each woman fails to tell the complete truth about her life in the journal, especially when she encounters failure or disappointment. When desperate circumstances cause Grace to bring the quartet back together again, telling the truth is in order, but they find that risking truth with one another is a daunting proposition. Stokes is a competent writer who knows how to craft a well-paced story. Although this book is more adventurous than her earlier fiction-CBA fans will be surprised to discover profanity and a lesbian character-Stokes's fans will find the same type of plot, faith themes and characters that they've enjoyed in her previous novels. Agent, Claudia Cross. (June 15) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Can seriously ill Grace admit to her college chums that much of what they've read in her journal wasn't true? Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
Praise for Circle of Grace

“The perfect story of enduring friendship. It is compelling, truthful, and poignant. You’ll want to buy several copies of this book, one to keep for yourself, the others to give to the women friends you are fortunate enough to include in your circle of grace.”
—Lynn Hinton, author of The Last Odd Day and Friendship Cake

“A beautiful novel of dreams gone awry, truths forsaken, and the blessings and redemptive power of women’s friendships. The dialogue is fast-paced, intelligent, and heartwrenchingly honest. The writing is clear and concise and speaks to the truths of our connection to the universe and to who we really are.”
—Joan Medlicott, author of The Ladies of Covington Send Their Love and The Spirit of Covington

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385510134
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/15/2004
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 358
  • Product dimensions: 5.69 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 1.05 (d)

Meet the Author

PENELOPE J. STOKES is the author of nine novels, including The Blue Bottle Club. She lives in Asheville, North Carolina.
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Read an Excerpt


The Persistence of Memory

Present Day

Grace Benedict was fifty-two years old, and she still hated going to the doctor. Avoided it at all costs. But this time she had no choice. Two weeks ago a long-overdue mammogram had revealed a suspicious spot on her right breast. Probably nothing, the doctor assured her. Most likely just a cyst; women got them all the time. After a needle biopsy and a battery of other tests, they had called her back in to discuss the results.

No, they couldn't talk about it on the telephone, the nurse had said. Better for her to come in and see the doctor personally. They scheduled the appointment for her lunch hour, promising it wouldn't take more than thirty minutes.

"Have a seat, Mrs. Benedict," said the young woman behind the glass-paneled counter. "The doctor will be with you shortly."

Not Mrs., Grace thought. But she didn't bother to correct the receptionist. Instead, she left the counter and parked herself in a cracked vinyl chair in the corner of the waiting room. To her right, a bubbling aquarium, its back wall lined with a garish shade of blue, housed several brightly colored tropical fish.

Grace picked up a dated, dog-eared copy of U.S. News from the coffee table and tried to ignore the whining child a few seats away. ELECTION RESULTS STILL IN DOUBT, the cover proclaimed, the words superimposed over photographs of George W. Bush and Al Gore. And in smaller letters underneath: What went wrong in Florida?

Grace tossed the old magazine back onto the table, but her eyes continued to fix on the words: What went wrong?

She pondered the question--one that had haunted her for nearly three decades. And there was only one answer, which was no answer at all: Everything.

Thirty years ago, she could never have envisioned the future that awaited her. A future riddled with mistakes and heartbreak and--

Well, better not to think about that.

She shifted in her chair and watched out of the corner of her eye as the frazzled young mother tried in vain to comfort her daughter. The little girl, who was perhaps five or six years old, curled up on her mother's lap and whimpered fretfully. "It'll be all right," the mother shushed, pushing back a damp strand of hair from her daughter's forehead. "The doctor will give you some medicine to make it all better."

Grace bit her lip and averted her eyes. If only there were such a medication, something that would "make it all better." But no wonder drug could fix a life, and even if such a miracle had existed, she wouldn't have been able to afford it.

A nurse wearing pink scrubs with Beatrix Potter bunnies printed on them came to the door with a clipboard and looked around the waiting room. "Mrs. Bennett?"

"Benedict," Grace corrected, then turned to the young mother. "Unless your name is Bennett?"

The woman shook her head. "Whitlock," she said.

Grace got up and went toward the nurse. "I guess you must mean me, then. Grace Benedict." She forced a smile. "Like the traitor."

"Whatever." The nurse looked at her blankly and shrugged. "Follow me."

Grace followed to Examining Room 3. "Have a seat," the nurse said. "The doctor will--"

"I know. The doctor will be with me shortly."

The second attempt at humor fell as flat as the first. The nurse shoved the clipboard into a plastic holder on the wall and pulled the door closed.

Almost as soon as the door clicked shut, a soft knock sounded. The doorknob turned, and a man entered. He was small and dark, with dense, close-cropped black hair and deep-set eyes. The name Sangi was embroidered in red over the pocket of his white lab coat. Grace had never seen him before, but a lot of physicians served the clinic, and it wasn't unusual to get a different one every time.

"Good afternoon, Mrs. Benedict," he said, his words clipped and precise. "I am Dr. Butahali Sangi." He flipped through her chart. "We have your test results."

"Grace. Please call me Grace."

He smiled. "Grace, then. Kindly sit, if you will, upon the table."

Grace complied, scooting onto the high examining table. The protective paper made a crinkling sound under her thighs.

Dr. Sangi eased down onto a rolling stool and drew up close. For a moment or two he said nothing, concentrating instead upon reading the records in front of him. At last he raised his eyes--large, dark, liquid eyes that reminded Grace of some vulnerable little forest creature.

"You recently had a mammogram, that is correct? February 15th?"

Grace nodded. "Yes." Something in her stomach fluttered, a caged bird beating the bars. "Is anything wrong?"

Sangi gazed at her for a full minute. "There is no easy way to tell such news." He shook his head.

She exhaled heavily. "The lump. It wasn't just a cyst."

The doctor laid the medical chart aside and touched her wrist with squared-off brown fingers. "There is no one I should call, perhaps? A husband? A friend?"

The contact was brief, gentle, but Grace felt as if she had been brushed by a live electrical wire. "No one." She drew in a breath and raised her head. "Just give it to me straight, Doctor. All of it."

"As you wish." He pulled back and ran his hand through his hair, then retrieved the chart and read: "You have what we believe to be a stage IV metastatic tumor with intrusion into the chest wall and intercostal muscles. We suspect significant lymph node involvement as well, but cannot know for certain until surgery is accomplished."

Grace's hand went instinctively, protectively, to her chest. She looked down at her fingers cupping her breast, and an image rose to her mind--a dark and menacing squid, its body lodged inside her, its inky tentacles spreading out to invade her torso, slithering toward her internal organs. She shuddered.

Dr. Sangi waited while she composed herself.

"Stage IV," she said at last. "How high do the stages go?"


"What about treatment?"

"I have already taken the liberty of speaking with a specialist. We can indeed attempt to remove the major portion of the tumor," he said. "At this stage it is unlikely, however, that surgery would be successful in a total removal of the cancerous cells. There are additional options. Intensive chemotherapy. Radiation, perhaps. Bone marrow or stem cell transplants."

The squid tightened its grasp, and for a moment Grace felt as if her lungs had collapsed. "But you can cure me," she said when she could breathe again.

"In such cases as yours we do not speak of cure," Sangi responded with a sigh. "We speak of containment. We speak of time gained."

"How much time?"

"You wished me to be direct," Dr. Sangi said. At Grace's nod, he went on. "At best, a year. Perhaps two. Perhaps not so much. We cannot know for certain until more tests are done." He turned his hands palm upward in a gesture of surrender. Grace noticed that although the tops of his hands were brown, his palms were pale pink. For a moment she felt as if she had glimpsed some private part of him, and she flushed with embarrassment.

"And what would that year--if I had a year--involve?"

"Radical chemotherapy, certainly. If we could shrink the tumor a bit, then surgery. Additional chemo afterward. As well as the other options I mentioned."

"A mastectomy, months of chemo and radiation, in and out of the hospital," Grace translated. She had seen it before. She knew the symptoms all too well. "Constant nausea. Hair loss. Depleted energy. And no guarantees."

"I fear you are correct." Sangi nodded.

"And if I elect to have no treatment?"

The physician's face went blank. "I beg your pardon?"

"If I walk out of here and don't treat this--no surgery, no chemo, no radiation. How long would I have then?"

A look of comprehension sparked in his eyes, an expression akin to respect. "It is impossible to determine. A few months, perhaps less."

"A few months without pain, without being turned into a voodoo doll, cut and poked and prodded and filled with drugs."

The doctor nodded. "You would likely have little pain until the very end. As a physician, certainly, I could not recommend--"

"Of course you couldn't." Grace slid down from the examining table and put a hand on Dr. Sangi's shoulder. "Thank you for your candor, Doctor. I appreciate it more than you know."

"You are indeed welcome." He smiled then, showing even white teeth against dark skin.

"I need a little time to think," she said. "I'll call you."

"Soon," the doctor warned. "We have no time to waste."


Somehow Grace managed to get through the rest of the day on autopilot--sorting through the return bin, shelving, cataloguing new books that had just come in--without thought or intention. No one at the library knew she had skipped lunch to go to the clinic. No one had a clue that anything might be wrong. Grace Benedict, the faithful stereotype, the unobtrusive librarian gliding through the stacks in silence, like an apparition.

But driving home at five-fifteen, Grace couldn't keep her mind from spiraling around the question Dr. Sangi had asked: "Is there no one I should call?"

Curiously, she felt no sense of imminent loss at the news that she was dying. On that count, she floated above the scene like the soul of a patient hovering between this world and the next, watching it all with a dispassionate eye. For the first time in years, she experienced a clarity of vision and an infusion of strength, a flood of adrenaline to the veins and endorphins to the brain. She knew without question that she would not submit to the "procedures" Dr. Sangi had described.

She did, however, feel an overwhelming sense of loneliness.

No, there was no one to call. Not a single friend or lover, no husband or parent or child, no one who might help her bear this moment of crisis.

How had her life come to this?

Grace's heart knew the answer even as her mind formulated the question. In the far reaches of her memory, she could hear the echo of a door slamming and bolts sliding into place--the clang of a vault being locked after the robbers had already come and gone. How absurd, to guard an empty soul with such tenacity. And yet she knew no other way to survive, to keep at bay the onslaughts of life's inevitable pain.

It hadn't always been this way. She'd once had friends, had once been in love, had once harbored wistful dreams of the kind of life other people seemed to live. She had trusted, had laughed, had opened her heart. But that had been a long time ago.

It had been more than twenty years since Grace Benedict had been in love, and then the fires of passion had brought not warmth and comfort but a raging conflagration that left her scarred and terrified of getting close enough to be burned a second time. On a few occasions in the past she had met someone nice and determined to try once more, only to shy away after the first date or the first kiss.

But she had had a best friend. Jet. Evelyn Jetterly.

They had met in the library, liked each other, and began meeting for coffee to discuss books. Gradually their intellectual companionship ripened into something more personal, the kind of friendship and belonging Grace hadn't known since college. For almost ten years they laughed together, cried together, told each other everything--almost. The two of them were closer than sisters, and Grace was happy.

Until Jet, too, was snatched out of her life.

Grace could still feel the frail bones of Jet's hand gripping hers, see the skeletal face with its wide eyes and dry, cracked lips. In Jet's case it was cervical cancer, and it took her so quickly that neither of them had time to adjust. She was just . . . gone.

Grace tried in vain to push Jet's dying image out of her mind. She didn't want to remember her friend that way, but the picture stayed with her. Now it was her turn, and there would be no one sitting by her bedside, holding her hand, when she passed.

How long had it been, she wondered, since she had gazed at another human face across a dinner table? Months? Years? Sometimes, in the shaded picnic area under the trees beside the library, she shared a brown-bag lunch with the part-time library assistant, Marge. But that hardly counted as socializing. Marge talked nonstop about the weather or quitting smoking or her current diet or her teenage kids, and she rarely let Grace get a word in edgewise. Not that it mattered. Grace never revealed anything personal about her own life anyway, and Marge never seemed to notice--or care--that their conversations were one-sided.

As she looked back over the years since Jet's death, Grace was hard pressed to account for how she had spent her time. She worked, took drives up into the mountains, watched TV, read four or five books a week. On weekends she went to bargain matinees and sat alone in the darkened movie theater, eating Wal-Mart popcorn she brought in a plastic bag from home. Sometimes she'd walk through the mall and window-shop. Have coffee at the food court. Chat with people she knew by sight but not by name.

Now Dr. Sangi had asked the question, and Grace had been forced to face the answer. There was no one to call. She could vanish from the face of the earth tomorrow, and no one would know she was missing until someone called the city to complain that their local branch library hadn't been open for a week.

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Reading Group Guide

1. Circle of Grace is a novel about friendship, about the power of honesty and vulnerability. And yet absolute honesty is a rare commodity. How and why do we put up fronts and pretenses? Are those pretenses ever justifiable?

2. Although Grace's lies are the most significant, in what ways and for what reasons does each of the women lie in the circle journal?

3. Each of the main characters experiences significant failure in her life. What are the results of those failures? What good ultimately comes out of the experience?

4. A recurring theme in Circle of Grace centers on the question: “What is truth?” How would you answer this question? Could you agree with the definition the girls came up with for their Philosophy class? How might you refine, focus, or extend their definition of truth?

5. Grace goes through a serious crisis of confidence when she comes to grips with the truth about her father, whom she adored. Why then does she fall for Michael Forrester, who is so much like her father, and why is she unable to see the similarities until it is too late? What is the significance of Grace’s recurring dreams?

6. When the girls first meet in college, they seem to be very different. What draws them together then? And what connects them after 30 years?

7. Tess endures a crushing blow with the failure of her first novel and quits writing for seven years. What is the revelation that turns her creative life around, and how does that vision of creativity reflect the restorations that take place in her friends’ lives as well?

8. When Grace finally reunites with her friends, she comes to believe that Tess’s daughter Claire is the little girl she once gave up for adoption. Why is this belief important to Grace? How does Claire become a catalyst for Grace’s ultimate acceptance of herself?

9. How does each of the main characters grow and change throughout the course of the story? Which of the women do you identify with the most, and why?

10. Who in your life has been a circle of grace for you?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 10 )
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 11 of 10 Customer Reviews
  • Posted October 12, 2013

    Beware-once you start reading you won't want the story to end

    I am a fan of Penelope Stokes and this book did not let me down. I enjoyed the individual stories of the characters and how their stories were woven together. The ending was beautiful and moving, but realistic. Often the ending of a story like this is a let down, as the characters become mired in sappy emotion. But these characters keep true right to the end. Buy this book, set aside plenty of time to read and grab a hanky. You will want to read this to the end.

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  • Posted September 1, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    So much "CHRISTIAN" hate displayed in the reviews..what a shame

    I am always shocked when so called Christians express so much hate for other people because "they are not like us"....

    This is a good book.. keep your hatred out of the reviews...

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  • Posted March 1, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    A Good Read!

    This is the first novel by Penelope Stokes that I have read. It was a touching story of friendships gone stale and then renewed. I enjoyed reading about the varied lives of these four friends. It was a book I could not put down and very tearful at the end. I would certainly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys reading about women's friendships and self-awareness.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 5, 2008

    NEW AGE?

    A reviewer said that she got a copy of this book at the library and there was a warning in the front cover -- something about new age -- well its not called new age. The writer hinted at a lesbian relationship -- loosely veiled. In her next book after this one she came front and center with the relationship. This author is supposed to be a Christian writer but these 2 books are not Christian in context. If you are truly a Christian and looking for good reading -- skip this.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 21, 2006


    If you enjoyed 'The Blue Bottle Club' you'll absolutely love 'Circle of Grace.' The story was wonderful, the characters were well-defined and the emotional rollercoaster hasn't stopped yet!! Don't hesitate to read this book -- you'll love it !!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 23, 2005

    Loverly book

    I got this book from the library and inside the front cover it said: 'Warning this book does not contain God's truth, but new-age lies' or something to that effect. And I kept waiting and waiting for the new age ideas to come into play... I have no idea what that woman was referring to. Sure, the characters were not overly religious, Bible beating fanatics, but they weren't pagans either. I thought this was a very heartwarming and touching book and very much enjoyed finding out which direction each woman's life went. I would be very grateful for friends like the ladies in Circle of Grace.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 4, 2004

    Disappointing wait

    As a fan in search of another spiritual lift from great Christian fiction, this book left me empty and wondering if a publishing due date drove this story. The characters fell flat and underdeveloped. The story was predictable. The lesson to be learned, none. And, the relationship I have come to enjoy from Penelope's characters as they discover and rediscover their relationship with God were all but missing in action, and little of that. Shallow and off point.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 30, 2004

    Great Summer Read!

    Circle of Grace was wonderful; truly a perfect beach book. The characters and story lines were well developed and very believable. It was filled with love, warmth,pathos and humor. Buy a copy for yourself and treat your best friend to her own copy.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 17, 2004


    This was one of the best books about friendship that I have ever read. I have 4 very special friends in my life who I cherish and I see so many traits in them that I found in the Circle of Grace friends. This was truly one book that I hated to see end - would love to see a sequel to this! Will share with my own Circle of Grace.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 16, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted November 2, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

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