On finishing The Truths and Triumphs of Grace Atherton I dearly wanted to stand up and shout, ‘Bravo! Bra-vooo!’, clap wildly and whistle as though I were at an orchestral concert.
But I would have woken up everyone in my house. So I settled for a mental fist pump instead.
Grace Atherton inhabits the edges of life, convinced she is living a full life, but she is not. She has an eight year relationship with a married man who lives in a different country. He promises he’ll leave his wife once his children are old enough. He even has the backstory of a sad and neglected childhood to explain why he won’t leave now.
It’s easy to understand Grace’s attraction to David. He is everything she is not:
He is, in one of my few French phrases, totally bien dans sa peau: happy in his skin.
Then again, Grace lives her life in perpetual fear, so living at the edges has probably suits her.
Grace justifies her relationship to herself because she knows David and his wife “have an agreement of silence, a contract of behaviour that puts their children first.” And yet, they are both lying to their children. What of that?
The near death of a pregnant woman on a Paris train track sets in motion a chain of events which will blow Grace out of the stasis in which she finds herself. Slowly – nudged along by old Mr Williams and her Saturday teenage shop girl, Nadia – Grace learns to prioritise her present life over a vague future vision.
This includes trying to overcome her decades-long fear of playing ‘cello in front of an audience. Though she sells, makes and restores ‘cellos in her small-town shop, and plays for hours each day in the privacy of her own apartment, Grace hasn’t even played in front of David – the person she trusted most in the world.
Her performance anxiety stems from the trauma she suffered on being thrown out of a prestigious music college twenty or so years ago:
Nikolai Dernov was the last person I played in front of. He would wholly approve of my terror at playing for an audience, any audience. In my darkest dreams on the loneliest of nights, I still hear the rasp of him clearing his throat in disgust.
Grace has tried everything, including therapy, but nothing has worked. However, the simplistic world view of a teenager may be just what she needs:
‘So what? You’re fucking awesome. Play anyway.’ Nadia is away with the idea. She is too young to understand that life doesn’t always let you have what you want.
I’ve had my own share of enthusiastic choir masters and musical directors scream threats at myself and fellow musicians to cancel shows if we didn’t perfect our notes. It’s pretty much par for the course in performance art, as far as I can tell. But never anything like the ritual humiliation Dernov put Grace through.
It made me wonder – why do people do that? Why is it not enough to make beautiful art? Why must we crush the confidence of those who are less than perfect to the extent that they stop making art altogether? And yet, it is true in a way that incredible art is often born through suffering. Also – to be fair – we did always improve after a good high-volume pre-concert ‘pep talk’.
There is plenty of story in The Truths and Triumphs of Grace Atherton but my favourite parts were when the narrative would suspend to make way for the music. At those times it felt like the story was simply a vehicle for the true purpose of the novel – the music.
The literary descriptions of the making of ‘cellos, writing music and performing it, were simply magical. Elsewhere, the turns of phrase themselves are so lyrical:
I accept the fact slowly, in drips that mottle all of our previous conversations like mould.
All the characters (even David the adulterer, annoyingly) are very relatable and likeable. But I have to give a special shout out to Mr Williams, whom I absolutely adored. An eighty-something-year-old monied gentleman, he is a regular client of Grace’s as well as a great support to her. He tells her:
‘You have to grasp life by the balls, Grace,’ he says, ‘and don’t bloody let go until you have to.’
Freaking amen to that.
Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher for the purpose of review. This post contains affiliate links.