‘A Years of Grace cocktail makes a good party but not too good a party. The kind of party that no one would have blushed for in the Years of Grace.’
3 JIGGERS OF WHISKEY — SCOTCH OR RYE
2 JIGGERS OF LEMON JUICE
1 JIGGER OF ROCK CANDY SYRUP
ICE CRACKED VERY FINE
Practically Shaved as for Crème de Menthe — so the drink seems almost frappéed, and is very cold.
-from So Red the Nose
I can’t think of a more delightful way to spend summer evenings than sipping this icy drink on the patio while reading its namesake. Margaret Ayer Barnes’ creation is a version of the whiskey sour, which sounds kind of serious and masculine, but this one is actually a delicious blend of sweet and sour flavors, like really good lemonade or a perfect margarita.
Google was no help in telling me what “frappéed” means, but I assumed it was somehow related to the word “frappuccino,” and, accordingly crushed my ice to slushy consistency. So I was gratified when, in the book, the main character, Jane, asks for her ice to be cracked so fine as to be “almost pulverized” for her crème de menthe. Luckily for me, my blender has an ice crush button, as, just like Jane’s poor, pathetic neighbor Mrs. Lester, I don’t have any luck with getting a servant to do such chores by hand for me.
“All people who think sooner or later go through hell.”
“Then my hell must be ahead of me,” said Jane steadfastly.
“You haven’t even experienced a purgatory?” smiled Jimmy. “Something you got in and got out of?”
“Not even a purgatory,” said Jane. “I’m a very naïve person. I’ve never experienced much of anything. “
“Perhaps that will be your hell.”
-From Years of Grace
This book broke my heart.
And it did so unexpectedly. When I first found Years of Grace at the library, I’ll admit I was a little intimidated. The book was a huge (581 pages), academic-looking volume, a Pulitzer Prize winner. Especially after the breezy murder mystery I just finished, Years of Grace seemed like SERIOUS BUSINESS.
But the story of Jane Ward delighted me from the first chapter. It’s the kind of book that I just couldn’t put down, not because I needed to know what happened next, but because Ayer Barnes created a world that I liked spending time in. Her descriptions of 1880’s Chicago — the elm tree lanes, riding bicycles on the beach in the park, the breezy freedom of lovely Bryn Mawr College — were painfully beautiful. Before the book even took that first unexpectedly sad turn, I grieved that this was a world that I will never experience in reality, a Chicago that had stopped existing even by the time this book was published 84 years ago.
Fourteen-year-old Jane lives in a different universe than me — a Victorian world full of cotillions, debutante balls, and in-house servants — but she is, nevertheless, one of the most relatable characters I have ever met. Reading her passionate thoughts about her first crush, her exhilaration at the freedom of college, her ambivalence about taking on the roles of adulthood were like reading my own thoughts put to paper.
And yet, from the first chapter, the story chipped away at my heart, not with dramatic scenes (although the book certainly has those), but with all the little heartbreaks, the tiny losses, the missed opportunities that Jane experiences from the age of 14 until the age of 51: the loss of her first love, the loss of her college education — and by extension, her own empowerment–, the loss of the excitement of youth, and, later, the loss of love again.
At first I thought Jane was a tragic hero(ine) in the classic sense: the admirable figure whose flaws nevertheless cause her own destruction. She wouldn’t have lost André, her first love, if her pride hadn’t pushed her to reject him. Her parents might not have forced her to come home from college if she had had more ambition. But as the book goes on Jane — and the reader — begin to realize that these painful hardships are just the ups and downs that make up any long life. At many times Jane’s story is sad, but it is not tragic. It is just her own.
Forgotten classic or better left in the past?
Years of Grace was worth this entire project.
It is the Platonic ideal of the phrase “forgotten classic”: an out-of-print book, a “literary loser” that ended up being one of the best books I’ve ever read. It is one of those books that I will read several throughout my life, and get something new from it each time.
Yes, it falls into the genre of “chick-lit,” but, it is so much more sophisticated than something like Little Women (sorry, Mom!). Jane is a completely likable, relatable character, but the author doesn’t romanticize her and sees her with a certain amount of ironic detachment. She is spirited and loving, but loses her first love through her pettiness and pride. She rolls her eyes at the vulgar gossip of her mother and sister, while obsessing over a new dress or gaining attention from a new love interest a few pages later. When she is young, she loves her freedom; when she is old, she scoffs at her own children wanting the same.
It became clear within the first few chapters that Ayer Barnes was a feminist, but the book never preaches. Unlike most chick-lit, both pulpy and literary, Years of Grace doesn’t portray marriage as a finish line in the race to Happily Ever After. But neither is Jane’s marriage some kind of mid-century Lifetime melodrama, with an abusive or domineering husband. Jane is sometimes miserable, sometimes content, and often bored with her kind but often oblivious husband. And their marriage goes through many natural changes as the two characters age.
As my opening quote also suggests, this book is rather slow-moving. But slow-moving doesn’t have to mean boring. It is a character-driven, rather than a plot-driven, story, one of the best of its kind that I have ever come across.
So, I hope is to do my small part in making this forgotten classic remembered again. It is absolutely worth shaking of the dust.
Like me, hopefully you can find the out-of-print Years of Grace at your local library. If not, Amazon has some pricey used Years%20of Gracecopies.
Next week: Is the book always better than the 200+ movies? We raise our glasses to the original apeman with the Tarzan book/cocktail.