Being a woman isn’t easy, trite as it may sound. Literature abounds in complex female protagonists striving to face life’s challenges head-on. But “Amazing Grace Adams” by Fran Littlewood appealed to me in particular, perhaps because it stemmed from recklessness. No stagnating in your problems for this lady, no sir!
Forty-five-year-old Grace is separated from her husband and estranged from her teenage daughter. She has ordered a birthday cake for her girl’s sixteenth birthday and has put her heart into it—inside jokes, beautiful moments from the past, all her love. And then her car gets stuck in one of north London’s infamous traffic jams.
She’s just had it. Our heroine decides to storm off and deliver the cake on foot, kick-starting an arduous day that will take her through impossible situations, lost moments, and regrets in one gigantic whirlwind.
The Eleanor Oliphant Revolution
Since Gail Honeyman’s “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” became a bestseller, novels with flawed, eccentric women have been a rage all over. There was “The Maid” by Nita Prose and, more recently, “Lessons in Chemistry” by Bonnie Garmus. Grace Adams is quirky, hotheaded, and impulsive. Even her profession is unusual: she’s a linguist who attends conferences like “Polyglot of the Year,” where fellow linguists participate in nerdy challenges. Eventually, Grace gets to star in a television show where her bit involves sharing unique, untranslatable words with the audience. The love story of Grace and Ben, her husband, also begins at one such conference (which, by the way, is one of the best portions of the book). Their romance flourishes with terrific wit and nuance.
But things start going downhill for Grace, and we don’t immediately know why. She has a turbulent relationship with her daughter, Lotte, but things are far worse than humdrum teenage drama. Ben and Grace have drifted apart. Her career is also unraveling, and she now works part-time as a French teacher and translator of romance novels. When we meet her in the present, stuck in that fateful traffic jam, Grace is at the end of her rope. Delivering that cake is her sole mission, and she won’t let a tsunami stop her.
Grace becomes wilder as her day doles out microaggressions aplenty. Nothing seems to go her way, and judgmental shop assistants or patronizing construction workers don’t help. Littlewood undoubtedly meant her first book to be a strong feminist statement. It even begins with a quote by Virginia Woolf, who founded modern feminist literary criticism.
Our heroine’s actions degenerate from yelling and abusing to smashing headlights with a golf club, the tone intending to be mock-hilarious against the prim British backdrop. But several of these incidents left me cold. It isn’t always easy to root for her, flawed or not. After a point, the day starts to seem interminable. It becomes an unsightly literary device to show us her challenges through the lens of that single day, her daughter’s sixteenth birthday.
What’s With All The Time Hops?
I must be getting old, but I remember when linear narration was standard in literature and cinema. While I like the odd multiple-timeline tools like the next person, it has been a tad overdone. This novel makes the reader jump back and forth a bit too much for my liking. Now, three months earlier, in 2018, I have flashbacks—even writing about them feels arduous.
The time jumps also attempt to create a few elements of suspense. One of these is a downer you can see from a mile away if you pay attention. The other is flat-out depressing and unsettling.
Without spoiling things too much for you, let me say that Fran Littlewood has packed the entire kitchen sink into this novel. From mourning to infidelity, mental illness to sexual assault, and even inappropriate touching on public transportation, it becomes difficult to get through and feels melodramatic. Portions of the book are triggering. Grace gets called out at work for gaining weight; she feels her skinny colleague has an eating disorder. There is an unplanned baby and a few funerals. Maybe—don’t read it on a beach holiday.
I get that society does fail women in myriad ways. But I feel these 300+ pages would have had a better impact had the author delved deeper into some issues instead of sweeping through the field.
Oh, before I forget, I must mention one thing that stood out: the hinting at perimenopause to loosely explain some of Grace’s feelings and actions throughout the book. Many “feminine” problems get laughed about as memes, from PMS to the labor-room screamer. But perimenopause is also an unnerving challenge for women in their forties, bringing on hot flashes, mood swings, and a fiery temper. And yet it’s not the “real” deal, so sympathies are fewer and farther between. I love how the author brought this up and didn’t sugarcoat its associated challenges, from cancer scares to hormone replacement therapies.
Having said all that, I did find the book to be a powerful and engaging debut. Fran sure has a knack for building meticulous characters and plots. Her writing is engaging and contemporary. I recommend you give it a go if you like reading about layered female protagonists against the world.