Author: Darnell Arnault
Publisher: Free Press: A Division of Simon and Schuster
Price: $14.00 (paper)
04/18/2011 Darnell Arnault had wanted to be a writer since high school, but it was not, finally, until 2005, when she was nearly 50 years old, that she saw her first books published. That year she published a volume of poetry, "What Travels with Us," with the LSU Press and then in 2006 this novel, "Sufficient Grace," which has been in print ever since and has become a favorite with book discussion clubs throughout the South.
"Sufficient Grace" begins oddly.
Gracie Hollaman of western North Carolina hears voices which tell her to pick up a pencil and draw pictures of Jesus larger than life-sized on the walls of her house: Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus with open arms, and Jesus knocking on the door.
The voices also tell her to leave her husband, Ed, who really hasn't done anything wrong at all.
From page one, readers will wonder about the voices. Nobody disagrees that Gracie does in fact suffer from late onset schizophrenia, but throughout the novel the reader is free to believe that Gracie is spoken to directly by God.
Arnault makes it easy to believe both.
Gracie drives off, gets north over the Virginia border, and then slides off the road into a ravine. She will be taken in by a generous and thoroughly sane black family, the Rileys, but since she is now mute no one knows what to do or who to call.
Gracie's elopement sets in motion a lot of action for other people.
Ed, who was surely intended to be a minor character, all but takes over the novel. At first he has to call a friend for directions on how to make hard-boiled eggs, but food comes to intrigue him and over time he buys equipment, practices, even experiments until he has won a recipe contest with his Kahlua chocolate cake with pecans.
As the months roll by, Ed also falls in love with Parva, the clerk at Walmart who sells him cooking equipment. This romance is humorous and touching, without goo. Parva, nearly middle age, has been saving herself for the right man. And she is sure Ed is that man. But it is tough to become intimate for the first time ever with a man whose wife may or may not be dead and whose house has larger than life drawings of Jesus on the walls.
Meanwhile, up in Virginia, the Riley family has their own troubles to get through. There has been a death and they find it hard to get past the grieving and move on. Calm, silent Gracie is oddly enough a help.
She also switches her artistic medium from white latex walls to car parts—fenders, doors, grills. "A trunk lid is painted with Jesus sitting on a rock, apparently laughing, with small children who have gossamer wings."
Gracie, now calling herself Rachel, also believes in angels, fairies and daily miracles. Miracle or not, Bernadette Siniese, a savvy dealer in outsider art, shows up from Atlanta and Gracie is "discovered."
"Sufficient Grace" has more characters than can be mentioned and so many issues are raised and resolved it might strain credulity. But throughout there is a kindness and tenderness in these characters that carries the reader along and makes it seem rude to quibble. The tone is gentle and unpretentious.
When the novel opens, all these characters are hungry for something. By the time it closes, they have all been fed.