A spellbinding work, Sufficient Grace explores the power of personal transformation and redemption, and the many ordinary and extraordinary ways they come to pass through faith, love, motherhood, art, even food. This poignant, poetic study of the human condition affirms the enduring importance of relationships and the strength we derive from them, even though we sometimes have to leave behind an old identity in order to discover our soul.
Beautifully paced, filled with unforgettable characters, Sufficient Grace reveals the vital place that spirit and belonging have in every inner life and in the everyday world.
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About the Author
Visit the author at www.darnellarnoult.com
Read an Excerpt
Gracie found the church fans in Martelli's Trash and Treasure on Manchester Boulevard. They stuck up out of a brass spittoon like a clutch of flowers. Take up the fan, a voice whispered. She turned around, but no one was there. Take up the fan, the voice said again, this time a little louder. At first she was uneasy. She listened for a full minute and heard nothing. She touched an edge of one of the dusty cardboard pictures. Take the lot of them, the voice said. We can use them all. She brought the fans home and hid them in the top of the coat closet and waited. She waited for over a month and a half. When the voice spoke again she was relieved. Draw the body of Jesus, the voice said. Draw the body of Jesus, it insisted. Draw it larger than life. The voice has since become a comfort.
Gracie stands on a step stool, a broad plastic rectangle of cream-colored Rubbermaid plastic. Her copper-red hair is twirled and knotted at the nape of her neck, the way she always wears it when she is working. She is still a slight woman at middle age, still has elegant limbs, radiant skin, but now her body carries the artful curves that so often come with menopause. What was once hard muscle is now fleshy solidness.
In her left hand Gracie holds a Wilcox Funeral Home fan with Jesus printed on it. Jesus wears white and red robes and his hands are extended, as if offering sanctuary. In her right hand Gracie holds a newly sharpened standard yellow number-two pencil with an unused eraser at the top.
She stretches her arm as far as she can toward the crown molding and draws the first light strokes of hair. With those first feathery lines she begins what will become a larger-than-life-size Jesus on the bedroom wall, the wall at the foot of the bed. Ed can see it every morning when he wakes up and every night before he pulls the chain to turn out the lamp. Jesus will have to watch over Ed because she won't be there to do it. As she stands on the stool softly striking the pencil lead against the freshly dried white latex paint, Gracie asks Jesus to look after her, too, to give her the gift of art so that she might do Him justice. She will take the fans with her. Leave the big Jesuses for Ed.
Ed needs volume. You need portability, says a voice.
She sketches Jesus' jaw line, then begins the eyes. Their intensity, the way they first pierced her with their compassion, is hard to translate onto the Sheetrock wall, but then she feels a tremble go through her body, that jellylike shock that happens when you touch something electrical and ungrounded. Gracie jerks slightly to the left, catches her balance with her pencil hand extended. The eyes improve with a few short strokes of the pencil and take on a vision of their own. Gracie knows the unfinished Jesus is watching her.
The top and sides of His hair take shape. Gracie draws His beard and His mouth. The upper lip is almost invisible. The rounded bottom lip curls out as if to speak. She listens. Nothing. She draws His nose, His cheekbones, the lobe of each ear. She moves as she draws. A line here, smudge there. High. Low. The image pulses forth with her heartbeat. Locks of His long hair fall to His shoulders and keep her from having to draw the ears in their entirety a blessing. Ears are the hardest things to draw next to hands and feet.
A breeze blows through the open window and Gracie glances out to see the daffodils in bloom along the driveway. Their heads already bend toward the ground. The bright flowers have burst forth in an unseasonably warm February; now, so close to Easter, they will soon be spent. Dashes of yellow fleck the bare woods and leaf-covered ground up to twenty or so yards from the driveway, then raggedly trail off into a buffer of trees between the house and a small city park. The sky is overcast. The gray light makes the waning daffodils appear translucent. Gracie decides to draw daffodils at Jesus' feet.
Ed wasn't pleased when she painted just three walls white in the whole house. "Why not all the walls?" he said. "Why random walls?" She didn't tell him she was making canvases. It wasn't going to help, so she didn't bother. He wants a room all one color. He has become so boring, so shortsighted, so out of touch.
By lunchtime she hopes to have Jesus drawn on all of the white walls: Jesus with open arms in the bedroom, Jesus praying in the garden at Gethsemane in the kitchen over the sideboard, Jesus knocking in the foyer on the white wall beside the front door. She has a fan to go by for each drawing, a full package of sharpened number-two pencils, and a fat white eraser for mistakes and shading, at His cheekbones for example. She never noticed before how high and sharp His cheekbones are.
Gracie is pleased with the drawing of Jesus with open hands. Good proportion, accurate perspective, the illusion of three dimensions. Her childhood art lessons flood back to her. She remembers that young art teacher she had in college. She puts off drawing the hands. She shades the hair around His ears, then steps down to have a sip of iced tea. The stool slips on the hardwood floor as she dismounts, and she lands with a little jump, her hand reaching for the pine cone-topped bedpost just behind her. The bed was her Aunt Claire Bailey's on her mother's side. Aunt Claire never married.
Gracie bends to draw the hems of the robes and notices the baseboards are dirty. She doesn't want dirty baseboards to take away from her drawings. She'll make time to wash them before she leaves.
His sandaled feet are easy. Only the tips of His toes protrude from the ripples in the full hemline. She shades the sandals with the side of the pencil lead. She finesses the toenails, tries to make up for the lack of visible feet by doing a particularly good job on the tips of His toes. She sharpens the pencil to get that crisp edge of the nails as they curve over at the sides and tuck into the flesh.
The feet of Christ, the voice says. You are at the feet of Christ. Silence. Now, the hands.
Gracie ignores the voice at first. She stands up straight and shades the folds of His sleeves. She widens His lips. It occurs to her that she has never seen a picture of Jesus laughing. She will draw a laughing Jesus when she's had more practice, when she's good enough to draw without a picture to go by. She climbs back onto the stool and adjusts the outer edge of one eye. She uses the eraser to soften some of the lines, to fill in the darker quality of His lips. Gracie fine-tunes everything until there is nothing left to do but the hands.
She looks at the fan for guidance, but the illustrator has taken the easy road, made the hands generic. She wants the palms and fingers of Jesus to be as detailed and perfectly drawn as the tips of His toes. But she was never good at drawing hands. The fingers never looked right. Gracie makes several attempts, then the voice says, Look at your own hands, Gracie. And she does. Gracie looks at her own hands and sees the hands of Jesus.
She moves the dressing mirror closer to her so she can get the right perspective. She begins to draw each wrinkle, each fold, each bend. She takes off her wedding ring and tosses it onto the bed. She extends her hands as if calling all those who need God to come to her. She looks at the way her hands drape down from her wrists, the way her fingers extend and curve back.
When she finishes the drawing, she collects the stool, the pencils, and the eraser. She walks across the room to the doorway and turns to look back at the completed Christ figure. Gracie realizes with joy that it is the best pair of hands she has ever done.
Copyright © 2006 by Darnell Arnoult
Table of Contents
Reading Group Guide
Sufficient Grace By Darnell Arnoult: Reading Group Discussion Guide
One quiet spring day, Gracie Hollaman hears voices in her head that tell her to get in her car and leave her entire life behind her home, her husband, her daughter, her very identity. Gracie's subsequent journey will effect profound changes in the lives of everyone around her. Ultimately, her quest leads her into the home of Mama Toot and Mattie, two strong, accomplished women going through life changes of their own. As the bonds between these women grow stronger and the family Gracie left behind comes to terms with their loss, both worlds slowly and inevitably collide.
1. How would you characterize the voices that Gracie Hollaman hears as she prepares to leave her home forever? What do these voices suggest about Gracie's mental state, and in what ways do they connect to a religious framework?
2. "People say men have midlife crises, but it's the women." Why does Ed Hollaman initially interpret Gracie's disappearance as her abandonment of him? What does his reaction to her absence suggest about the nature of their marriage and their feelings for each another?
3. When Mattie Riley discovers Gracie Hollaman lying on Arty's grave, why does she see it as some kind of divine signal? How does Mattie's grief over her husband's untimely death affect her decision to take Gracie into her home?
4. How does Gracie's disappearance from their home improve Ed's life? What changes in his character and day-to-day existence seem especially dramatic or interesting? Given the uncertain circumstances of his marriage, to what extent are his feelings for Parva Wilson understandable?
5. In what ways is Mama Toot the "glue" that holds her family together? What explains Toot's delay in recognizing "Rachel" as the grown-up little girl, Gracie, whom she took care of so many years before? How does she make sense of Gracie's reappearance in her life?
6. How would you describe Ginger's reaction to her mother's schizophrenia? Why do you think that she fears for her own mental instability? What do you think of her boyfriend, Wally, and the prospects for their relationship?
7. In what ways do the characters experience the presence of Arty in the novel? Do you think he is really present? Why or why not?
8. Do you feel Mattie must choose between her grief over Arty's death and her burgeoning feelings for Noris Dibner? Why or why not? Why do you think the author chose to conclude the novel before Mattie reaches closure with Arty's death and fully embraces her romantic interest in Norvis?
9. Why are Ed Hollman and Mama Toot content with Gracie's desire to change her name to Rachel, divorce Ed, and return to live with the Riley family? How does Gracie's decision have an impact on both families?
10. Besides the close look at Ed and Gracie's relationship, in what other ways does the novel seem to address the idea of love and marriage?
11. How does the novel explore the concept of mothering? What about mother/daughter relationships in particular? What about the definition of family?
12. What is the significance of Tyrone's great-grandmother's prediction for his future? In what ways does the prediction come true?
13. We know Gracie becomes obsessed with closing the circle of her story with Ed. Where else do you see circles at play in the novel?
14. "They have been raised up to believe anything of God, to believe He can say your time is out no matter who loves you or how much." What role does faith play in the Riley family? To what extent does it play an important role for the Hollaman family?
15. Sister Reba and Gracie both feel "called" to make some of the same decisions. They both leave their families for a different, nontraditional life, a life with a focus they believe is defined by something beyond their own desires, even by God. They both retreat to the woods at times. Can you think of other common ground shared by Reba and Gracie? Why are these similarities viewed differently from one character to the other?
16. On a larger scale, how do you interpret the issues of faith and fate in the novel? Of miracles and coincidence? Of the thin gray line between a passionate, inspired calling and bona fide illness?
17. Why is food so important in Sufficient Grace? What does cooking represent to Mattie Riley? What does it symbolize for Ed Hollaman? What significance does it hold for the time frame of the novel? How does Sister Reba's sermon on leftovers apply throughout the book? How did the sensory descriptions of cooking and eating in Sufficient Grace affect your reading experience?
18. How did you interpret the title of the novel? In what way does the religious concept sufficient grace relate to events in the book?
19. Which character(s) in Sufficient Grace did you most identify with and why? Who is your favorite character and why? Do you think that there is a single "hero" or "heroine" in this novel? Why or why not?