Tender Graces by Kathryn Magendie is the kind of book that sticks with you long after you finish it. I turned the last page this morning, and I still can't get the characters out of my head. It's Southern fiction set in West Virginia and Louisiana from the 1950s through the present. The story is told in the first person by Virginia Kate Carey, opening in the present as she makes her way back to West Virginia to pick up her mother's ashes. While back in her childhood home for the first time in years, Virginia Kate thinks back to the start of her parents' relationship and details the events that led to the breakup of her family.
Virginia Kate is a girl haunted by the ghost of her Grandma Faith, her maternal grandmother who was married to an abusive husband and met a sad and violent end. Her mother, Katie, was a beautiful, wild mountain girl who was immediately drawn to Frederick Hale, a door-to-door salesman who loved to quote Shakespeare. The two elope almost immediately, with Grandma Faith initiating their relationship by buying some kitchen items from Frederick and inviting him for dinner, seeing it as a way to get Katie away from her abusive father. Ultimately, they have three children -- Micah, Virginia Kate, and Andy. Virginia Kate loves her parents dearly, but their alcoholism and the frequent arguments that sometimes turn violent are hard for the children to bear.
Tender Graces shows how hard it is to deal with being separated from a parent, having to rebuild your life, and learning who you can trust with your heart. The book also touches upon the definition of family and the mistakes parents make when they just don't know how to do the right thing and how these mistakes can change the course of one's family history. Magendie's writing is wonderful, and she seamlessly moves the narrative from the past to the present and back again. The characters are rich and unique, and it's hard not to like them, even when their decisions leave you heartbroken. Some of the characters are a real treat, like Mee Maw, Virginia Kate's paternal grandmother, who is an awful woman but her antics are as entertaining as they are horrifying. Magendie does a great job with dialogue, and the Southern accents, mannerisms, and culture make you feel as though you are right there in the story. It's hard to believe this is Magendie's first novel.
The tone of the story was sad, with bits of hope peeking through. I fell in love with Virginia Kate, and I didn't want her story to end. Magendie doesn't leave any loose ends hanging -- though they're not all tied up neatly, which I like -- but I can't stop myself from wondering what happens to everyone afterward. I highly recommend Tender Graces, and I know it will make my list of favorite books for the year.
Tender Graces also was reviewed by:
S. Krishna's Books
Pudgy Penguin Perusals
If you've also reviewed it, let me know in the comments, and I'll add your link!
Disclosure: I received a free copy of Tender Graces from Bell Bridge Books for review purposes.