Ellen Gable’s sequel to In Name Only, appropriately titled A Subtle Grace, is refreshingly beautiful and bold in a world in which Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility meets modern-day Downton Abbey. Set in late nineteenth century Philadelphia, the reader immediately delves into an epoch of romance, the stark reality and contrast between good and evil (in the days before relativism became the norm), and the ethereal realm of horse-drawn carriages, puffed sleeves with matching hats and gloves, and high society living.
As one who prefers non-fiction to fiction, I was pleased to be captivated by Gable’s impeccable development of the O’Donovan family, despite the fact that I had not read the prequel to A Subtle Grace. In Gable’s literary creativity, she immediately draws the reader into a sweet fondness for the O’Donovans, a wealthy (and devout) Catholic family who model the virtues of charity and humility with an ease that reminds the rest of the world what the faces of corporal and spiritual works of mercy appeared to be in ages past.
Kathleen O’Donovan, a young, spritely dreamer of a woman, shares the spotlight with Karl Wagner, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and Luke Peterson, a meek and strong-spirited physician. Both young men attempt to capture Kathleen’s heart, with Karl’s initial charm and wit succeeding in the beginning; however, the truth of his heart’s affections and intentions rapidly becomes manifest as he tries to overpower Kathleen in a fit of passion. Luke, however, remains silent in his developing love for Kathleen, knowing that she is courting Karl; instead of overtly winning Kathleen’s heart, he often prays for her and that the Lord would send him his beloved in due time.
Luke’s patience and interior holiness pay off; after Karl’s attack on Kathleen, Luke attends to her physical – and psychological – wounds, withholding his love for her out of respect for the necessary healing that he knows will take place gradually. Luke epitomizes, “Love is patient, love is kind” (1 Cor. 13:4-7).
Throughout this beautiful love story peppered with Theology of the Body themes and lessons, Gable exquisitely portrays the epic and age-old battle of the wrestling between holiness and sin in every human being, most overtly in her main characters, Luke and Karl, but also in her supporting characters, Will and John (Kathleen’s brothers). Within each of their journeys, Gable displays their interior strife on the way to finding their purpose and true path.
One final note is Gable’s amazing use of irony as it pertains to Luke’s final catharsis as he recalls a repressed memory involving the use of firearms: in one sense, he used a firearm to accidentally kill someone when he was a child, and in another sense, he purposefully and prudently choose to use it to protect his wife and unborn child. This is brilliant, and I was thrilled with her genius in this concept.
What is A Subtle Grace? It is the quiet beckoning that each of us receives from our Lord, the gentle persuasion we encounter at the dawn of each new day and season of our lives. A Subtle Grace is redemptive, healing, transformative, and life-giving. It is the joy each of us has the potential to unlock, despite life’s circumstances and challenges. A Subtle Grace is a heartfelt, pure novel rife with the raw pain reflective of humanity, and it is certainly a timeless tale that will withstand cultural changes and philosophical ideologies.
Because of this, it is a story of the heart that is certain to reach man, woman, adolescent, those in any vocation and in any stage of his or her personal odyssey. It traverses with the person, nudging his or her conscience to discover something new about oneself and to desire personal reform; what a beautiful gift we have in Gable’s storytelling and in A Subtle Grace.
Copyright 2014 Jeannie Ewing