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The Saving Graces
by Patricia Gaffney
(Harper Collins, $24.00, PG) ISBN 0-060-19192-9
****
Part comedy, part romance, part friendship tale, The Saving Graces is one of those rare novels that can make a reader grin while being slowly twisted into knots inside. This story packs an emotional wallop, and whatever your reaction, you won't be left unmoved.

The Saving Graces are four diverse women in their forties who meet bi-weekly to share dinner and stories about themselves. Isabel, the oldest, is a breast-cancer survivor and late-forties divorcee who is now enjoying the bohemian lifestyle denied her as a young adult. Emma, forty-ish, is a journalist with a track record of lousy romantic entanglements and a secret desire to write a novel. Lee, married and ever-efficient, seems to be the glue that holds the group together, but her desperate attempts to conceive have driven her marriage to the brink of collapse. And Rudy, the beauty of the group, is trapped in a floundering marriage to a manipulative, controlling man.

The story is told in first person from each character's viewpoint, in alternating chapters. We get to know these women intimately. Their stories play out in front of our eyes and draw us in it's easy to root for all of them in turn.

Emma soon meets the man of her dreams an attorney-turned-artist who touches a chord deep inside her, and she him. Their meetings are innocent as she interviews him for an article, and after she finds out he's married, Emma determines to keep them innocent. No torrid affair, no matter how much heartbreak it causes her. Emma's sassy, irreverent take on the world and her situation was the highlight of the book to this reader.

Isabel has a romantic interest of her own a man from a neighboring apartment that she assumed was gay. He's not, but just as she's about to involve herself, fate turns against Isabel, delivering bad news with a hammer blow and shaking the Graces to their foundation. Isabel's journey will bring her love and an ultimate joy in life; her challenge is to make the other Graces see it. They couldn't ask for a better guide.

Lee, with her manic attempts to get pregnant, was a little harder to embrace. She has a wonderful husband and a great deal of love in her marriage, but her obsession with having a child of their own became a bit tiresome, in the way that one sometimes wishes to shake a self-absorbed friend and say, "For god's sake, look around you!" Her super-efficiency took on smug overtones she wants to fix everyone else's life but can't see the flaws in her own. It will take Isabel to shake Lee out of her rut and point her on a path to happiness.

I imagine that every reader will find one character more difficult to connect with than the others, and for this reader, it was Rudy. A lousy childhood and alcoholic parents have left her an emotional mess, married to a handsome man who slyly manipulates her every move by withholding that which Rudy needs most love. This is abuse of the most invisible kind, and as Rudy desperately tries to solve the problems in her marriage, I desperately wanted her to shake the illusions from her eyes and find her backbone. She does, in a scene that will delight readers, but it's an uneven payoff in some ways.

The dialogue in this book sparkles with wit and realism. Emma's earthiness is offset by Lee's studied manners; Isabel's candor balances Rudy's self-delusion. They are indeed an even foursome.

The Saving Graces will end up on many a keeper shelf. Celebrate the friendships of women check out this book.

--Cathy Sova


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