The Ways Of Grace
by Linda Francis Lee, contemporary (2002)
Ivy, $6.99, ISBN 0-8041-1995-3

Trauma Porn Queen Linda Francis Lee has always walked a fine line between overwrought melodrama and cold, elegant poetry, and in this, her latest (and it's a contemporary romance), The Ways Of Grace, she has almost everything right. This is an icy tale of elegantly tortured characters, written in well-crafted flashbacks and carefully structured scenes that can wound the careless heart.

The author has also taken care to remove the worst of her standard big miscommunication and other painfully trite traumatic plot devices, although she still uses pregnancy and death as her standard tools of manipulation. But this time around, I'm willing to be swept away.

This book starts with one of the most beautiful - contrived or sincere, I don't know, and I don't care - one night stand scenes I've ever read. Jack Berenger is leaving the ER when he sees this woman sitting on a bench in front of a church. In her wedding gown, she slowly plucks petals from a bouquet of roses she is holding - he loves me, he loves me not. Okay, Ms Lee does a much better job than me, but it's there - the whole bonding of soulmates that don't even know they are soulmates yet.

Her name's Grace Colebrook, and she's actually a neighbor. They will have to bear the consequences of their one-night stand as each have the luxury of spending all their time wallowing in guilt and misery over every conceivable angst you can imagine - exes, wives, almost-spouses, parents, disease, corporate backstabbings, a shrink can cream his pants following these two people's dramatic sobfest. But this time, I'm enjoying every minute.

It's not an easy read though. Grace is the most problematic, as her story develops slowly along with Jack's - in fact, you will only slowly learn more and more about each other as they tell each other their sob stories. But even then, sometimes her actions - consisting mostly of a variation of lying down on the floor as everybody walks all over her - don't make much sense. Why is she so prim to the point of arctic frigidity? Why is she so afraid?

In fact, Grace drags this story to a painful, bitter late half that threatens to sink into melodrama. Just when I thought Ms Lee has successfully reined in the worst of her showy theatrics, it just has to rage out of her to ruin what is shaping up to be the best Linda Francis Lee book I've ever read. It is a good thing that many of the better scenes in the book still resonates with me to dull the bitterness of the aspirins I'm popping down my throat.

Jack is a better character. He's a man whose own personality flaws lead to a lot of his angst and baggages. But at least he, unlike Grace, isn't afraid for the most part to hold on to their fragile bond as much as he could handle. His character is more fleshed out than Grace's, who at times seem to be running in all directions when it comes to motivation.

Okay, the baggages the characters have aren't new or original. But Ms Lee is always a polished storyteller, using most effectively various techniques like masterfully inserted flashbacks, elegant turn of phrases, and other techniques her fellow Trauma Porn rivals would gladly murder for. Technically faultless, this book also features a seductively hurt hero and a heroine whose icy exterior for the most part is equally seductive. The chilling beauty of that is the desolation in these two losers' souls linger on long after the last page like a haunting threnody, and I actually believe in those moments that this book may just be one of the best I've ever read.

Alas, there's always those final chapters leading to the ending to bring me back to earth. But it's a tough one - the reconciliation scene tempts me so strongly to forgive and forget. The too-sweet and disgustingly cloying epilogue, thankfully, makes the decision for me. Perfect? Not quite, but good enough.

Rating: 89

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