Saying Grace

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Overview

Rue Shaw has everything—a much loved child, a solid marriage, and a job she loves. Saying Grace takes place in Rue's mid-life, when her daughter is leaving home, her parents are failing, her husband is restless and the school she has built is being buffeted by changes in society that affect us all. Funny, rich in detail and finally stunning, this novel presents a portrait of a tight-knit community in jeopardy, and of a charming woman whose most human failing is that she wants ...

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Saying Grace

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Overview

Rue Shaw has everything—a much loved child, a solid marriage, and a job she loves. Saying Grace takes place in Rue's mid-life, when her daughter is leaving home, her parents are failing, her husband is restless and the school she has built is being buffeted by changes in society that affect us all. Funny, rich in detail and finally stunning, this novel presents a portrait of a tight-knit community in jeopardy, and of a charming woman whose most human failing is that she wants things to stay the same.

Saying Grace is about the fragility of human happiness and the strength of convictions, about keeping faith as a couple whether it keeps one safe or not. Beth Gutcheon has a gift for creating a world in microcosm and capturing the grace in the rhythms of everyday life.

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Editorial Reviews

Adair Lara
“Saying Grace is a smart, funny, sane novel — the kind that I ransack bookstores to find.”
New York Times Book Review
“Ms. Gutcheon knows private schools, and she knows her craft-and that’s a winning combination.”
Boston Globe
“By turns heartwarming and heartbreaking.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“Deliciously readable”
San Francisco Chronicle
“Deliciously readable”
Boston Globe
“By turns heartwarming and heartbreaking.”
New York Times Book Review
“Ms. Gutcheon knows private schools, and she knows her craft-and that’s a winning combination.”
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In her mid-40s, Rue Shaw, the head of a country day school in a small California town, has much to be thankful for: satisfying and meaningful work; a warm and loving marriage; a talented 19-year-old daughter who has never caused her a moment's worry. Yet in Gutcheon's elegiac fourth novel (after Domestic Pleasures), even a life as well composed and stable as this is vulnerable to unexpected changes. Rue is depicted as a warm, wise woman able to navigate school politics and to accept bravely the changes for her family when her daughter leaves home to attend Julliard. But when an unthinkable disaster occurs, even Rue cannot cope. After an absorbing if slow-paced setup, Gutcheon errs in focusing the denouement too closely on Rue, abandoning the points of view of crucial minor characters (such as the secretary who plays an important role in Rue's marriage) who added dimension to the first half of the story. By relying too heavily on the perspective of a character who responds to heartbreak primarily with dignified composure, this quiet novel fails to deliver sufficient emotional impact. (June)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060927271
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 5/28/2005
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 643,356
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Beth Gutcheon

Beth Gutcheon is the critically acclaimed author of eight previous novels: The New Girls, Still Missing, Domestic Pleasures, Saying Grace, Five Fortunes, More Than You Know, Leeway Cottage, and Good-bye and Amen. She is the writer of several film scripts, including the Academy-Award nominee The Children of Theatre Street. She lives in New York City.

Biography

Beth Gutcheon is the critically acclaimed author of eight previous novels: The New Girls, Still Missing, Domestic Pleasures, Saying Grace, Five Fortunes, More Than You Know, Leeway Cottage, and Goodbye and Amen. She is the writer of several film scripts, including the Academy Award nominee The Children of Theatre Street. She lives in New York City.

Good To Know

Gutcheon shared some fun and fascinating anecdotes in our interview:

"When my second novel was in manuscript, a subsidiary rights guy at my publisher secretly sent a copy of it to a friend who was working in Hollywood with the producer Stanley Jaffe, who had made Goodbye Columbus, The Bad News Bears, and Kramer v. Kramer, run Paramount Pictures before he was 30, and met the queen of England. My agent had an auction set up for the film rights of Still Missing for the following Friday, with some very heavy-hitter producers and such, which was exciting enough. Two days before the auction, Stanley Jaffe walked into my agent's office in New York and said, ‘I want to make a pre-emptive bid for Beth Gutcheon's novel.'

‘But you haven't read it,' says Wendy.

‘Nevertheless,' says Stanley.

‘Well, I have this auction set up. You're going to have to pay a lot to have me call it off,' says Wendy.

‘I understand that,' says Stanley.

Wendy named a number.

Stanley said, ‘Done,' or words to that effect.

To this day, remembering Wendy's next phone call to me causes me something resembling a heart attack.

When, several weeks later, Stanley called and asked me if I had an interest in writing the screenplay of the movie that became Without a Trace, I said, ‘No.'

He quite rightly hung up on me.

I then spent twenty minutes in a quiet room wondering what I had done. A man with a shelf full of Oscars, on cozy terms with Lizzie Windsor, had just offered me film school for one, all expenses paid by Twentieth Century Fox. He knew I didn't know how to write screenplays. He wasn't offering to hire me because he wanted to see me fail. Who cares that all I ever wanted to see on my tombstone was ‘She Wrote a Good Book?' The chance to learn something new that was both hard and really interesting was not resistible. I spent the rest of the weekend tracking him from airport to airport until I could get him back on the phone. (This was before we all had cell phones.)

I was sitting in my bleak office on a wet gray day, on which my newly teenaged son had shaved his head and I had just realized I'd lost my American Express card, when the phone rang. ‘Is this Beth Gutcheon?' asked a voice that made my hair stand on end. I said it was. ‘This is Paul Newman,' said the voice.

It was, too. The fine Italian hand of Stanley Jaffe again, he'd recommended me to work on a script Paul was developing. Paul invited me to dinner to talk about it. My son said, ‘For heaven's sake, Mother, don't be early and don't be tall.' I was both. We did end up writing a script together; it was eventually made for television with Christine Lahti, and fabulous Terry O'Quinn in the Paul Newman part, called The Good Fight."

"I read all the time. My husband claims I take baths instead of showers because I can't figure out how to read in the shower, and he's right."

"I started buying poetry for the first time since college after 9/11, but wasn't reading it until a friend mentioned that she and her husband read poetry in the morning before they have breakfast. She is right -- a pot of tea and a quiet table in morning sunlight is exactly the right time for poetry. I read The New York Times Book Review in the bath and on subways because it is light and foldable. I listen to audiobooks through earphones while I take my constitutionals or do housework. I read physical books for a couple of hours every night after everyone else is in bed -- usually two books alternately, one novel and one biography or book of letters."

"I have a dog named Daisy Buchanan. She ran for president last fall; her slogan was ‘No Wavering, No Flip-flopping, No pants.' She doesn't know yet that she didn't win, so if you meet her, please don't tell her."

"Last little-known fact: When I was in high school I invented, by knitting one, a double-wide sweater with two turtlenecks for my brother and his girlfriend. It was called a Tweter and was even manufactured in college colors for a year or two. There was a double-paged color spread in Life magazine of models wearing Tweters and posing with the Jets football team. My proudest moment was the Charles Addams cartoon that ran in The New Yorker that year. It showed a Tweter in a store window, while outside, gazing at it in wonder, was a man with two heads."

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

It was two days before the opening of school when the Spanish teacher dropped dead. Dropped is the right word; she was on her knees in the garden, cleaning out the crocosmia bed, when she felt a sudden lightball of pain in her chest, and then was herself extinguished. She toppled face-forward into the fragrant California earth, and lay there, stiffening in the September sunshine, wearing her green-and-yellow gardening gloves. She was otherwise dressed for work. It was the faculty's first day back at The Country School, and the news of her death found her colleagues gathered in Packard gymnasium for a CPR course, performing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on rubber women.

As her colleagues mourned and comforted each other, Rue Shaw left the gym to hurry across campus to her office. Under the circumstances, she was struck by the illusion the parched campus imparted of a serene and manageable universe. The fields where the bigger boys played football were freshly mowed and green from a summer of sprinklers. As she passed, Manuel was laying down lines in white lime so that all could see the structure of the game, the clear boundary between in and out, good and bad, safe and sorry. Everywhere the scent of cut grass mingled with the smell of eucalyptus.

The offices of the Head, and all the rest of the administration, were in a building known as Home, because it had been the original homestead when the campus was a ranch. The Plum family who pioneered it had grown prosperous and built a grand Victorian farmhouse with wide, covered porches and the latest in gingerbread trim, in which Rue now lived. From there the Plum family had raisedlivestock and apricots and used the old homestead for a sheep barn. Rue Shaw now bustled into Home through the dutch door, which Merilee kept open at the top to let in the sunlight and the perfume of the outside air and closed at the bottom to keep out the campus dogs and cats. Rue went straight past Merilee's desk to find her assistant head, Mike Dianda. His office, which had once been a birthing pen for lambs, was low and cluttered, with heavy dark beams and small windows. Mike's desk was stacked with papers and books; he had more than once misplaced his telephone and had had to wait for it to ring so he could find it.

In Mike's office, miscreant children sent to be sentenced sat in the ladderback wooden chair facing his desk. But the soft leather chair against the bookcase was only for Rue, for when she came in with mugs of tea at the end of the day and kicked the door closed behind her. Mike was to Rue like the brother she never had. He was tart, smart, handsome, and funny, and as far as she could tell, never afraid to tell her she was wrong. The collaboration was particularly successful because he did not want her job. He would make a fine school head when his life was more his own, but at the moment as a gay man and a single parent he had enough on his plate getting his daughters through school.

"I talked with the mother in Albuquerque," said Mike, as Rue appeared in his doorway.

"How is she?"

"They knew Mariel had a heart condition."

"Did they? Did we know it?"

"I didn't. Maybe Lynn Ketchum did, or Cynda Goldring. They were closest to her."

"Will they have the funeral here?"

"No, they're taking her back to New Mexico. We'll have to have a memorial."

"God. Yes. When?" They both looked at the calendar. Beginning of term was jammed with conferences, trustee meetings, parent council meetings.

Rue said, "I better call Fletcher Sincerbeaux. And Helen Lord, and . . . who else has Spanish in Primary?"

"Would Mrs. Ladabaum come back, do you think?" Mike asked.

"I don't know, isn't she in Florida?"

"Would we want her if she'd come? She was getting awfully deaf."

"Of course . . . I never saw a better teacher. We must have an ear trumpet somewhere."

"Okay, I'll find her," said Mike.

Rue went off to her office to start calling fellow school heads who might have a lead on a Spanish teacher.

On the wall in her office Rue kept a framed motto from Lucy Madeira, a famous East Coast educator. It read: "Function in disaster, finish in style." She often wondered what motto her predecessors, Carla and Lourdes Plum, would have willed her, had they been able to imagine her. The Plum family had proved over time to be as unfruitful as their land was lush, and their line narrowed and stopped with the spinster sisters, Carla and Lourdes, who had made a living conducting a day school according to tenets of their own devising.

Rue had made a study of the "archives" left by the Miss Plums. These artifacts were piled in wooden milk boxes and stored in the abandoned ice house, and included papers, letters, programs from Germans and Christmas plays, books, bottles of Coca-Cola syrup with which they treated children's coughs, woolen bathing suits, theatrical costumes, and some untouched ration books from World War II. The Miss Plums had gaily mixed notions of progressive education which they read about in papers sent out from New York, with their favorite parts of Science and Health, the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, and the teachings of Madame Blavatsky. They believed that babies were born with their souls and their life paths fully formed, so there was no point imposing structure from without that might serve to crowd or cloud the structure within. They believed that every child had an aura which could be read, and that after death, that aura remained on earth, not so much a ghost as an angel, so the clear California air was crowded for them with invisible beings, concerned with the ways of woman and intervening in all her doings.

If the Miss Plums were right in their interesting theories, then no doubt their own auras lingered on the campus of The Country School, interfering in the business of shaping young lives in the ways most likely to confirm their own beliefs. If their theories were in error no one would ever know, because the Depression had put an end to their experiment before a significant sample of scholars could be sent out into the world. Their school was closed, and the Miss Plums lived by selling off bits and pieces of outer pastures until only fifteen acres remained. By that time World War II had brought prosperity back to the region, and the Miss Plums lived to see others make large profits on land that had recently been theirs. Their joint Will and Testament left what land and money remained for the founding of a Country Day School, on acres that had once been lost in a wide expanse of range and orchard, but by the last decade of the twentieth century formed a hemmed-in green patch of nature, bonsaied between expensive developer houses and an upscale mall called The Countrye Mile. The campus was like a patch of the world as it once had been, but in a jar, with the top off.

Emily Dahl arrived in Seven Springs by accident, if there are accidents. She had driven north until the children got hungry, and pulled off the highway into the nearest town. Her blond hair was clammy from heat and dirt, and there were half-moon perspiration stains under her breasts on her once crisp lemon-yellow blouse. She kept thinking of things she had forgotten to pack. A favorite pair of gardening shoes she had left outside the back door. A book she was reading, left facedown on the clothes hamper beside the bathtub. The worst was David's gerbil. Fortunately, David had not yet noticed.

She found that Seven Springs was a town of some natural beauty. There were fruit trees, citrus, and apricot, and on the dry hills, avocado. She and Malone and David found a taco restaurant that was air-conditioned. Across the street was a movie house that must have been built in the thirties. It had dusty art deco lettering on the marquee and the front of the theater was faced with black marble. It was cracked now, with pieces missing, but the whole effect was evocative; she remembered the theater in the town on Long Island where she grew up, where the whole eighth grade would show up at the movies on Saturday night. If you liked somebody and he liked you, you would sit apart from the group, in the balcony. There would be frightened bumblings having to do with the boy getting his arm around you while pretending to stretch. You would then die of embarrassment as you waited another hour or so for him to get the nerve to let his arm, lying across the back of your seat, inch down to encircle your shoulders. This, Emily realized, was a memory from a simpler world.

Malone squinted across the street at the movie house while she ate. Eleven years old, she had just gotten her first pair of glasses. She looked like a cross between a beautiful bombshell and a baby owl.

"Mom, What About Bob just started."

"Did it? Can you read the times from all the way over here?"

Malone nodded. "You'd only miss a little bit of it and I can tell you what happened."

David said "Are we going to the movies?" David the space cadet noticed everything two beats after everyone else.

"I don't know," said Emily, wondering really, Why not? What else did they have to do that evening? "Sure, if you want to."

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Reading Group Guide

Plot Summary
Saying Grace is set in the close-knit community of a country day school on California's gold coast. It has been shaped and nourished for almost two decades by the headmistress, Rue Shaw, a woman of extraordinary character, quiet dignity, and steely resolve. A passionate educator, a devoted wife, and a loving mother of a daughter on the brink of adulthood, Rue seems to be reaping the benefits of a life lived properly and wisely. Then unexpected changes creep into Rue's carefully composed professional and personal shelters. At school, a question of whether a fifth-grader is being abused at home sets off a clash of values and cultures that profoundly shakes the entire community. At home, a chilling tragedy and an unsettling secret threaten to derail Rue's pattern of perseverance.

Saying Grace is about the fragility of happiness and the strength of convictions, about keeping faith and adhering to principles whether it keeps one safe or not. It is about the comfort of the familiar, and the charm of a special community guided by integrity and common sense and shaken by inevitable human failing.

Topics for Discussion
1. When Bonnie describes to Rue the Zoroastrian system for recognizing personality types, she defines a "helper" as a person so focused on being Good that she doesn't see the big picture. Is this true of Rue? If so, how?

2. One of the most prominent conflicts in this novel involves the clash of values represented by Rue Shaw and Chandler Kip. What are those values and do you believe that they are irreconcilable? Do you think that Rue was politically savvy in dealing with Chandler?

3. In SayingGrace, the purpose of education is a subject of continuous debate. For Chandler, the mission of education is to equip a person to compete and win. How would you define Rue's beliefs? Whose arguments do you feel are more compelling? How does the world of this school resemble current political thinking in the world at large?

4. Catherine Trainer is a perpetually vulnerable character and important catalyst to the major events in this story. Is she a comic figure or a tragic one? If she had behaved differently, would the story have had a different ending?

5. Hints about Henry's relationship with Emily percolate in the course of this story. Do you think Rue's reaction to it shows strength or weakness? Do you feel Henry deserves blame or sympathy?

6. At Chandler Kip's Christmas party Rue talks about the "spiritual gestation" each person undergoes. Why did Chandler's mother find Rue's statement so offensive?

7. Henry and Rue have different views about the meaning and purpose of work in their individual lives. While Henry had chosen a traditional high-stress high-income career path, Rue chose to be an educator, an altruistic occupation compared to one of the more highly paid professions that the Chandler Kips of the world find impressive. Do you feel that Henry is disillusioned, at mid-life, about the beliefs and expectations he had when he was younger? What about Rue? How does it make you feel about the career choices you've made and where they have brought you?

 About the Author:
Beth Gutcheon has written three other novels, Domestic Pleasures, Still Missing, and The New Girls. She has written several film scripts, including the Academy Award-nominated documentary The Children of Theatre Street. She lives in New York City.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 4 )
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 6 of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 19, 2008

    This book was just OK

    I have read a couple books by this author & loved them. I didn't feel the same w/ this book. The story picked up after I got about half way through. There were so many characters I had trouble keeping them straight. When the main character & her husband went to Arizona, I found myself skipping the entire chapter. <BR/>The part I disliked the most was inconsistancy. In the beginning of the book, the author is telling us about the main character, Rue & her assistant, Mike. She goes on to state Mike is a gay man w/ 2 daughters. Later in the book, he gets married to a woman who works in the school?? Did they marry for convenience? love? was he now straight? That part made no sense.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 5, 2003

    An unforgettable story!

    It's a wonderful tale of motherhood, marriage and being a woman. It is beautifully written and provides a unique peak into the innerworkings of a small country school. Any mother, daughter, teacher or wife will love it. Much like life, the story has ups and downs and the characters are unforgettable. A book to get lost in and a great gift for any woman who appreciates a good read!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 23, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted November 6, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 28, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted July 29, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

Sort by: Showing 1 – 6 of 5 Customer Reviews

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