Mary Grace Klassen's parents love their family and Nebraska farm. They love their Mennonite faith even more. They study the Bible, attend church regularly, and avoid the wickedness of the world.
Family, farm, and faith are not important to Mary Grace, the main character in the novel The Third Grace by Deb (Neufeld) Elkink. Actually Mary Grace sees family, farm, and faith as a three-fold stone she's forced to roll up the mountain of life. In that respect she's like Sisyphus of Greek mythology.
It's Francois, an exchange student from Paris, who first stirs in Mary Grace the desire to break free of family, farm, and faith. A teenager at the time, she regards Francois as the epitome of sophistication and sexual attraction.
His tales of Greek gods and goddesses thrill her. She's especially intrigued by stories of The Three Graces, mythic goddesses of life's pleasures such as play, rest, amusement, happiness, and relaxation. Mary Grace identifies so strongly with one of the Graces that she takes her name, Aglaia.
The smooth-talking Francois is about to relieve Aglaia of her virginity, with her encouragement, when her brother finds them. A faithful Mennonite, he defends his sister's virtue by wrestling Francois away from her.
One might think this event would shame Aglaia, prompting her to repent and return to her faith. It doesn't. Even Francois's disgrace in the eyes of her family and his abrupt departure don't affect her that way.
As soon as she can, she leaves the farm and moves to Denver. There she finds work as a costume designer. She loves the job, which lets her implement and develop her considerable creative abilities. However, she remains stuck in a time warp spiritually and psychologically.
Memorized verses of Scripture hinder her enjoyment of the faith-free life she's chosen. She has no romantic interests. "All her romance was relegated to the vault of her thoughts, where she could keep a close eye on it and steer clear of further pain….her lack of comfort with men stemmed from confusion about what she had to offer—about who she was. She'd lost a piece of herself when Francois left."
Her faithfulness to Francois's memory seems pitiful and neurotic, especially since she never hears from him. Even in her thirties, she can't abandon her first love.
Aglaia's employer, Eb, exerts a Christian influence on her. Her friend Lou doesn't.
Lou teaches at a university, where many of her lectures focus on goddesses and the deification of the feminine. She scorns Christianity for what she sees as its emphasis on male dominance. Furthermore Lou regards the Bible as a book of myths "preceded by equally valid tales of earlier cultures."
Like Lou, Eb is interested in stories told by earlier cultures. But his view is different from hers. He says "The Bible fulfills all the longings aroused by fairy tales passed down through the ages and tells us what they really mean. Look into the Word and it will look right back at you; it will see you and change you."
Whose lead will Aglaia follow?
Answers don't come easily. Complicating her journey are uncertainty about her career goals, the continuing influence of her Mennonite family, and a bittersweet reunion with Francois.
How will Aglaia find direction for her life? Will this late bloomer ever come of age? Elkink keeps us guessing almost to the conclusion of the story.
This novel grabbed me from the first time I saw it. I love the windmill on the cover, contrasting so oddly with the sculpture of one of The Three Graces. The book appeals to the senses in many ways. For example, Elkink does a good job of portraying life on the Great Plains with words such as "perpetually rouged by prairie wind." When Aglaia visits Paris, I felt I was there with her, seeing what she sees: "The crumbling brick wall of the upper stories above the shop was graphed with minuscule apartment balconies, pots of scarlet behind wrought-iron railing."
I come from the same people group as Aglaia and family, namely Dutch-German Mennonites from Russia. As a result I was curious to see how the author, also an ethnic Mennonite, would convey the group's cultural flavor. She does much of it through traditional home-made foods, for example, Worscht (sausage), Kjielke (noodles), and Päpanät ("peppery nut-sized goodies").
Such down-to-earth Mennonite fare contrasts interestingly with the "rare beef with chocolate and wine" and other gourmet dishes Aglaia eats at a banquet described near the end of the book. Dramatic events during this banquet force her to finally decide. Will she continue trying to escape family, farm, and faith? Or will she integrate them into her life in a new way to become a more authentic Aglaia, or Mary Grace?