This is a debut novel by Canadian author Deb Elkink. And it is well worth the read.
The novel captivated me from the beginning as Ms. Elkink spins the tale of Mary Grace, aka Agalaia Klassen, a young woman with an identity crisis. The story is spun expertly as we learn more and more of Aglaia's background and her struggle to discover who she really is. Her journey is wrapped up in an old romance and a tragic death, her struggle exacerbated by a university professor who wants to use Aglaia's talents for her own ends.
I found myself wanting to cheer for Aglaia when she moves in the right direction and wanting to hiss at Lou, the professor whose agenda is dangerously close to becoming reality. The characters are well drawn and the skillful writing kept me wondering to the very end who would triumph.
This book is a triumph and I look forward to more from Deb Elkink. She is a skilled writer and powerful story-teller.
— Marcia Laycock, One Smooth Stone
Compelling moral themes:
One of the greatest fallacies today is the denial of history and tradition in an effort to recreate ourselves. For in denying history, we deny God. In Deb Elkink’s debut novel, The Third Grace, this theme runs through a well-crafted story.
In this coming-of-age plot, Mary Grace, 17, seeks to find herself by redefining herself, leaving her past behind. She falls in love with Francois, a high school exchange student, because of his image, not his true character. After an unforgettable summer, Francois is no longer in her life; she leaves her rural Nebraska roots for the big city of Denver. She desires sophistication, replacing humble faith with proud doubt. Francois renamed her Aglaia, after the goddess of beauty in Greek mythology, and she gladly keeps the new name.
No longer Mary Grace, she pursues her career in costume design as Aglaia, designing costumes as she tries on her new persona, or seeks to do so. She uses old-world skills — thread and needle — to gain entry into the brave new world of theater and university and film.
Through the elderly character of Ebenezer we watch the battle in Aglaia, and it is through Ebenezer that the authorial voice is largely heard. He is a man of faith and tradition, a man who believes in God and Scripture, who knows the difference between illusion and reality, between lies and truth, as well as between the role of art and the purposes of education. He is our wise man.
These are large subjects, and Deb Elkink weaves them into the fabric of her story, counterpointing flashbacks to that pivotal summer on the farm and Aglaia’s growing relationship with the local university in Denver. From the university enters our third point-of-view, that of the nihilistic professor Lou, and we see the cynicism and greed of a life without divine guidance. We consider the nature of art and the role of academia.
As a farm girl in the big city, Aglaia is tempted by the liberal gnosis of academia that Lou embodies, and this too is well drawn by the author. It is a world tempted by itself, like the snake devouring its own tail. We see sexual temptations, worldly temptations, and temptations simply of self-pride and self-destruction.
Aglaia must of course face this conflict in her soul and must choose who and what she is, and more importantly, how to go about making these choices, what authority to call upon. She takes a Bible on her business trip to Paris and it is this book of Scriptures that weaves in and out of the story as though it were a character in its own right, a character from her past that she can’t quite abandon.
Ms. Elkink has created a huge canvas in few pages, a novel rich in word and image. We hear renderings of tradition versus modernity: “You are what you read” (76) and “The moment one idolized the method, one lost the message.” (77) What do we idolize? Should we? Why?
While the author’s word choice and phrasing can at times be too rich, too dense, I appreciate her brilliance, knowing that trapping the right detail isn’t easy:
She dipped into her bag to hook out her sketchpad and, with a few deft strokes of her graphite, captured the swing of the violinist’s skirt, the strain at the sleeve seam as the girl propelled her bow across willing strings. (135) (italics mine)
Ms. Elkink’s depiction of the great rural landscape of Nebraska, a place I do not personally know, gave me a beatific glimpse of the natural world:
By Aglaia’s watch, it was eleven o’clock on Sunday morning and already sheets of heat undulated over the standing grain. The wind swept the crop like a hand brushing velvet, swatted the clouds and a flock of skittering sparrows across the sky. (218)
And her depiction of a tornado:
They spy a twister backlit by flashes forming in the roiling clouds, and … they watch in awe a funnel dipping and lifting, a dark finger stirring the blacker fields before closing up into the fist of the sky… (229)
The settings are intriguing as the reader journeys from Mennonite farmlands to Denver, and on to Paris — that city of light (or is it dark?), that city of art (or of illusion?), that city of romance (or heartbreak?). What is real and what is illusionary? What is art and what is faith? Why does our culture worship art as we lose our faith? And, perhaps most importantly, even, why are there rules of behavior that our mothers and fathers have tried to teach us? Rules their mothers and fathers taught them? Does the past speak to us, and should we be listening? These are some of the questions considered in The Third Grace.
While this novel does not portray the sacramental life known to the Catholic world, there are compelling moral themes of redemption and sacrificial love. And we see the power of Scripture and prayer through Ebenezer and Aglaia’s childhood friend Naomi. The themes of The Third Grace revolve around tradition and family, morality and Scripture, rather than the Church itself, and it is from these islands of stability that we enter the myths propagated by art and academia. Aglaia and the pagan world meet Mary Grace and the Christian world. And the name Mary Grace naturally echoes Hail Mary, full of grace… Such echoes breathe in the pages, singing almost silently.
The Third Grace is a beautiful rendering of a difficult and unpopular subject, the questioning of the roles of academia and art, and the need for a resurgence of Christian faith.
“Aglaia” is the third “Grace” in the sculpture, “The Three Graces,” by James Pradier (1831), a subject celebrated by artists since the Renaissance. Since that fifteenth-century rebirth of the pagan world — the Renaissance — man has searched for substitutes for the religious impulse, the desire for God, and art has been one of the answers. Another has been the celebration of beauty itself. A third, the embrace of self at the cost of love. Our culture continues this search for God-substitutes at great cost, denying our true nature as children of God.
Thank you, Deb Elkink, for reminding us what is real and what is not.— Christine Sunderland, Pilgrimage
(Review first appeared in CatholicFiction.net)
When I first picked up The Third Grace (Greenbrier Book Company ISBN 978-1-937573-00-3) I was unprepared for the amount of research that must have been involved. This novel, by author Deb Elkink, is packed full of the history of Greek mythology and yet the information is woven carefully into the story. Why would a book that has a Christian theme be so full of another religion? Well — this author has targeted a non-Christian audience and is very aware of the fascination that has suddenly arisen over Greek mythology.
The Third Grace (306 pages) is a story of a young woman who has abandoned her Christian upbringing. She has given in to the mysterious draw of mythology. It doesn't help that her name is Grace and the exchange student who lived with her as a young teen has renamed her Aglaia after one of the Three Graces. We see Aglaia struggle to come to terms with her apostasy. We see her strive to embrace her new age religion and her new life. We cringe at the interference of a dominating professor named Lou who is determined to climb the ladder using Aglaia as an important top rung. And we cheer at the quiet strength and faith of Aglaia's employer. It is a well-written and complex story with a satisfying end to it.
If there is anything I might change it would be a few brief scenes where the sexual content teeters on the line. Ms. Elkink never crosses the line but her proximity to it may make some conservative readers a bit uncomfortable.
Overall, The Third Grace is a great read with the message of the cross clearly outlined.
— Donna Dawson, Rescued
The Third Grace, a debut novel from Deb Elkink, expertly weaves together the multiple story lines that make up Aglaia's life, a costume designer in Denver. Complex characters place conflicting demands upon Aglaia, and it's these complex relationships that shed light on her own inner turmoil. With confident phrasing and a rich vocabulary, Ms. Elkink brings Aglaia's world to life, as well as recounting her discarded past, her rejected faith and the inner struggles that threaten to overwhelm her. Ms. Elkink transports us from the mountain city of Denver, Colorado, to a Nebraska farm to the vibrant streets of Paris, each location vivid and distinct in its particular details. As the story develops, it becomes clear that it is a clash of worldviews that ultimately lies at the centre of Aglaia's dilemma. This is a satisfying and thought-provoking read, engaging both the heart and mind.
— Marjorie Miller, playwright
Reader, be ready for a journey into thought and experience beyond your comfort. While journeying, be aware that Deb Elkink has you by the hand and will tenderly, yet assertively draw you into Aglaia's world at her most vulnerable moment of facing a crossroad of faith, conflict and identity crisis. The Third Grace (263 pages Greenbrier Books) is a perfect example of how one grounded in faith can be exposed to different understandings and values and still remain faithful, using those values to bring one through uncertain times.
Can a young woman raised in one culture step into another without losing a sense of self? And who should discover this remnant of brokenness, but another woman; a self-assured educated woman with social status and ulterior motives. What will she do with the growing awareness of Aglaia's life as she continually discovers ways to use Aglaia for her own benefit? Will she exploit Aglaia to her own advantage? Will she use Aglaia to better herself or will she concede to Aglaia's inner strength rising to the true heart of her values?
The author's understanding of Greek mythology and the cultural era offers a pictorial view of style, texture, colour and imagery. Mixing this with an academic knowledge and depth of Greek culture, you will taste French wine, climb the vocational hierarchy, edge toward sensual drama and readily discover how Aglaia is soon consumed by others ambition for her. Her time spent in Paris endangers her goals and leaves the reader wondering if it will ensnare her. The author's insistent way of taking her reader into the past for a nugget of memory, enlarges the plot, opens the future and entices her reader into the next step of mystery.
Her mentor in the faith and in her own future, unbeknown at times to Aglaia, Ebenezer reflects God's love in knowing ways, standing in the meaning of his name, he prays "Thus far the Lord has helped us." He understands Aglaia, acknowledging that she is beyond her depth of understanding as she risks reading and discussing certain topics. Yet he stands by, silently at times allowing her freedom, yet covering her in love. Would her beloved employer provide the opening she needs to make the important change to her career or will she step into a new academic setting?
Deb Elkink is able to plant hints to unresolved plot twists and turns that gives her reader a hint that something more of the same is coming. She holds up worldly argument versus biblical accuracy to the reader, like a biscuit to a dog. Yet she never allows the reader to risk the worldly preference rather than the strength of scriptural truth woven through time. She always holds her story in the certainty of choice and consequences, placing a mystery in decision.
Will Aglaia find the Francois she once knew? And will her faith securely hold her safely above differing perspectives in this search? I know you will read the end to find these answers . . . as I did.
— Donna Mann, Aggie's Dream
The daughter of hard-working Mennonite farmers, Mary Grace's life takes a dramatic turn at the age of 17 when a French exchange student visits her family's Nebraska farm and skillfully weaves his way into her heart. Using Greek mythology to woo her, Francois upsets Mary Grace's childlike faith with his fanciful pagan tales. When he is unceremoniously sent packing, Mary Grace's heart goes with him, and she turns away from God and her family.
Now fifteen years later, Mary Grace, who has legally changed her name to Aglaia and moved to Denver to pursue a new life and career, has the opportunity to visit France through her employer. She is determined to find Francois and reconnect with him, or at least bring closure to the story of their youthful love, since her remembrance of him and obsession with him, has stopped her from opening up to any other man or developing transparent relationships. Aglaia's mother, Tina, wants her to find Francois for another reason — to return to him the Bible he left at the farm, in the margins of which he had made notations whose meanings she does not understand.
As Aglaia reads through the notations she remembers that summer of love, all that happened in it, and how it changed her forever.
At a recent meeting of one of my writers' critique groups, I was admonished for the level of vocabulary apparent in my work, and told that the "rule" is to write at a fifth grade level. Deb Elkink breaks that rule entirely — no fifth grade level readers here, please. The language is elevated, and I think you have to have an intense interest in Greek mythology as well. (I took a Greek and Roman mythology course in university, and still the content in this book is a bit too much for me. I admit that further along in the book, I skimmed a few, but not all, of these parts).
Aglaia is a three-dimensional character the reader invests in and cares about. The other characters are in a way types, but that does not make them less interesting or provocative. The story's plot is complex, but extremely well developed, with a satisfying resolution. Although this is Christian fiction, it is not at all preachy and I'm sure there will be some readers who wish the book was more "Christian." I am pleased to recommend this book to the more erudite and open-minded reader.
— Susan Barclay, blogger ("Notes from Innisfree")
Aglaia Klassen is a thirty-something single woman developing a strong reputation in the world of costume design. Her goal: become a "seasoned urban artist" and find the inner peace that's eluding her.
Born Mary Grace Klassen, she left that name behind with the family farm and the Mennonite faith of her childhood. "Aglaia" is the name of one of the Three Graces in Greek mythology, and it connects her to a major root of her inner turmoil: Francois Vivier, the young French exchange student who spent a summer on the farm — and who left with her heart.
An upcoming business trip to Paris, and Francois' sensual notes in an old Bible, bring the past into the present and Aglaia develops an obsession with finding Francois again. If she can see him now, perhaps she can put the past to rest and find her true identity.
The main influences in Aglaia's life are Dr. Lou Chapman, a self-focused feminist who wants to lure her away from her employer to work for Lou's upscale university, and Ebenezer MacAdam, Aglaia's gentle boss who's been quietly grooming her as his replacement.
Aglaia may not know who she is, but everyone else seems to know who they want her to be. Lou pushes, Eb suggests, and Francois' notes reveal his own agenda. Author Deb Elkink presents each character as him/herself without commentary and without judgement and lets the reader worry over whether Aglaia will find herself — or be shaped into someone else's version of reality.
The Third Grace is women's fiction with the introspection of a literary novel, and the central characters are well-realized and strong of voice.
This is a thinking reader's novel, although it will satisfy those of us who read mainly for the story. The characters of Lou and Francois see the Bible as only one of the many valid sources of myth, and Lou is selective in the mythology she uses to prove her own view of the universe.
Eb remembers his own questions along those lines, but he's found his personal satisfaction in the Bible as truth and he knows it means more than vague philosophy. He's not threatened, and he's comfortable to pray for others without trying to argue them into his understanding.
The novel itself does not feel preachy or like a philosophical treatise (although Lou speaks that way because that's who she is). It's written by a Christian, perhaps more for wandering women than for those secure in the Kingdom, and portions of the content are more worldly than some Christian readers will find comfortable. Nothing is gratuitous, though, and each character's thoughts and actions are true to who they are. That's why the story worked so well for me even when bits were a bit out of my comfort zone.
The Third Grace is the story of one woman's journey to reconcile with her past and find herself in the present.
— Janet Sketchley, writer and blogger ("God with Us: Finding Joy")
From the beginning of the novel, Ms. Elkink captures the reader's curiosity with an intriguing, unresolved relationship from the main character's past. Treated to such rich, yet fresh descriptions of events the reader experiences the plot, rather than just reading about it.
Mary Grace, who seeks to distance herself from her religious up-bringing, changes her name to Aglaia but she can't leave behind the events of her past. This is a well-written piece, cohesive with a good flow, so that surprise events don't throw the reader off-balance, but rather add suspense.
Hard to put down, this book will cause the reader to evaluate several factors. The conclusion realistically wraps up the fibers of the plot.
— Pamela Green, teacher
Layered and sumptuous:
Aglaia Klassen's jaunt to Paris has been a long time in coming. But now it's three days away — a business trip for which the main character in Deb Elkink's debut novel, The Third Grace, has significant plans of her own. On the evening we make her acquaintance she is trying to inveigle from her worldly friend Lou, how one would go about finding someone in that vast city.
When Tina, her country bumpkin mother, bursts upon their little soirée with the embarrassing request that Aglaia take the Bible that Francois left at the farm 15 years ago and return it, Aglaia is beyond humiliated. But the Bible does find its way into her luggage and becomes a magnet once she discovers the notes this French exchange student scribbled in its margins all those years ago.
As she reads them, she is transported back to that summer of young love when she was 17 and sure that Francois' heart was all hers. She recalls the Greek myths of which the Bible stories they read in youth group reminded him, and finds tucked inside a photo postcard of the Three Graces. The Third Grace, Aglaia, is what Francois called her. That's why she has not been Mary Grace — the name her parents gave her — for many years.
Much has happened since that crossroads summer at the farm in Nebraska. She has made an impression on the cultural scene in Denver where she works as an up-and-coming costume designer. As far as she's concerned, her Mennonite past is history despite the longing in her parents' eyes and their thinly disguised pleas for her help with the farm.
Aglaia's friend Lou has her own agenda. Their paths get crazily entangled in this story that explores young love, faith, identity, and loyalty to family and friends.
The well-realized characters make The Third Grace a delight. Lou is a devious college prof who we don't trust from the minute we meet her — though Aglaia wants to and tries to, to our dismay. Eb, Aglaia's boss at the costume shop, is an eccentric, wise, father-figure and my personal favorite. His love for the Bible and the Christian classics creates a fine foil for Aglaia's fascination with Greek mythology. Francois, the charming, lascivious student from the past plays a large role through Aglaia's memories. Aglaia's Mennonite parents ring true, with their homespun sensibilities, their ethnic cuisine, and their Plautdietsch-inflected pronunciations: "trock" and "tanse" for "truck" and "tense," and Germanisms like "Na jo," En betje." Finally there's Aglaia herself — talented and ambitious, yet idealistic, wistful, and conflicted in the way she continues to carry the torch for her teenage sweetheart.
Elkink's writing is a tailored garment of sensuous description, trimmed with just the right words to signal deeper meanings. Note this bit from the opening scene where Aglaia is entertaining Lou in her apartment:
Aglaia angled her glass and looked into its blood-red interior. Wine was a symbol of communion, she thought, and she was using it with carnal deliberation to seal this relationship that had so much to offer her (p. 12).
Or this snippet describing Aglaia's relationship with her craft:
From the time she was a child...she'd hankered to sew. She learned the smell of the flax beneath the linen, savored the variance between silk and wool. She had a habit still of chewing a strand each time she laid out a length of yard goods ready for the shears. She made a sacrament of touching and sniffing and tasting — a sensual adulation (p. 42).
I wasn't surprised to learn that Eklink is herself a seamstress and has designed costumes.
I enjoyed this tale for its writing style and literary forays as much as its finely crafted characters. Elkink seems as comfortable recounting Aglaia's fall from faith and attraction to the occult world of Greek myth as she is describing a scene of teenage seduction, a Paris bistro, or a child-squirmy kitchen. Through Eb she shares wisdom from Christian luminaries like Saint Augustine, Dante, and the Bible.
— Violet Nesdoly, writer and blogger