A compelling protagonist and a lyrical style grounded in precise observation of the physical world: these are the hallmarks of Idaho author Doerr’s complex, ambitious first novel.
As in the stories of his highly praised debut (The Shell Collector, 2002), Doerr explores the tensions between scientific objectivity and emotional vulnerability—here in the story of David Winkler, a trained hydrologist whose understanding of predictability in natural process is unsettled by mysteries that unfold from his own nature. For David experiences prophetic dreams of mischance occurring in both humdrum and catastrophic forms. We first meet him on an airplane when, at age 59, he’s returning to the US from 25 years of self-exile and servitude in the Caribbean Grenadine Islands. Working through extended flashbacks that comprise most of the text here, Doerr patiently fills in the blanks. Growing up a scholarly, solitary youth in Anchorage, Alaska, David “dreamed” his chance meeting with the woman he would wed—then, finding her unhappily married, persuaded her to accompany him to a new life in Ohio. Fathering a daughter (Grace), then dreaming the flood in which he himself accidentally drowns her, David fled his marriage and future, booked passage on a Caribbean-bound steamer, then spent an embattled quarter-century laboring to return to obligations he had shed, meanwhile acquiring a new “family” and a second chance at happiness. About Grace possesses a seductive symbolic intensity, and abounds with gorgeous descriptions and metaphors (“The sea teething” on a coral reef; “the million distant candles of the stars”). But it’s much too long, and is significantly marred by its climactic momentum toward a reconciliation that simply isn’t very credible. Its protagonist’s loneliness, regret, and guilt are painfully palpable, and go a long way toward making this risky book work—but, in the end, aren’t enough.
A bold attempt, nevertheless, by a gifted writer whose own future looms promisingly indeed.