Saying Grace

Saying Grace

by Beth Gutcheon
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Hardcover(1st ed)

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Saying Grace by Beth Gutcheon

In this elegant and moving novel, a woman faces middle age and confronts disappointments, regrets, and conflicts, but ultimately finds the courage to change her life, from the critically acclaimed author of Still Missing and Domestic Pleasure.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060176785
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 05/01/1995
Edition description: 1st ed
Pages: 312

About the Author

Beth Gutcheon is the critically acclaimed author of the 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.

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."

What People are Saying About This

Adair Lara

“Saying Grace is a smart, funny, sane novel — the kind that I ransack bookstores to find.”

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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Saying Grace 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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!