Alyssa Brugman’s poignant novel Finding Grace tells the story of Rachel, a quirky high-school graduate as she learns about a brain-damaged woman she cares for named Grace, and in turn, finds out much about herself. In this heartwarming tale, Rachel is first introduced to Grace through an unlikely friendship with a man named Mr. Alistair Preston. His connection with Grace is deep and mysterious, and as Rachel learns about Grace’s past, she also learns about why Mr. Preston feels so strongly for Grace. This novel is touching and relatable, and through its development readers are reminded to hold judgments on others until information on their past is revealed. This bildungsroman emphasizes the struggle associated with caring for those who cannot care for themselves along with the self-actualization that comes with taking care of others.
Finding Grace opens with “Grace had a brain injury. That’s just how she was” (Brugman 1). Brugman wastes no time in introducing the titular character, but she spends the rest of the novel providing bits of information about Grace in order to give the reader the sense of learning about Grace, or “finding” her, just as Rachel did. In this way, the reader becomes connected to Rachel, to Grace, and to the story almost immediately as Brugman immerses the reader into the plot and gives them a sense of interaction with the characters.
Most of the story revolves around the growth in the relationship between Rachel and Grace. Rachel’s preconceived notion that caring for Grace will be easy is shattered on her first day as caretaker when Grace wets herself twice and then is forgotten by Rachel in the bathtub. Rachel learns that in order to do her job, she must think for two rather than one, and must always keep Grace in the forefront of her mind. In this, she slowly but surely becomes proficient, and then successful in her role. With her successes, Rachel – and the reader – learn about Grace’s past which shifts Rachel’s understanding of Grace as a person.
This turning point in outlook comes after Rachel reads Grace’s letters and inner thoughts that were written before Grace’s accident. As Rachel realizes that Grace is more than just a job, her understanding of life changes. There is a noticeable shift in Rachel’s perspective, and her mantra of “I was eighteen and knew everything” which was noted several times changed to “I am eighteen and I know a few things.” (51, 190). This discovery leaves Rachel vulnerable to her own emotions as she begins to see that life is truly not fair. In an attempt to grasp this concept and make peace with it, she takes solace and comfort in her relationships and takes measures to bring her friends and family closer together. She treats Grace as though she was Grace before her accident, and she calls Grace by “turtledove,” a nickname and indicator of friendship on Rachel’s part (104). She also fosters a relationship with a boy she meets at university named Hiro. Hiro is quirky like Rachel but displays a confidence in himself that Rachel is drawn to. Her attraction to him forms a foundation for later romance in the novel which displays Rachel’s eventual movement toward acceptance of her own quirks. Rachel’s friendship with Alistair also strengthens as he becomes comfortable enough to reveal his love for Grace along with the guilt he feels about her accident. In this friendship, Rachel and Alistair also utilize a nickname – though instead of “turtledove,” they use “chum” (120). Last, Rachel pursues a lost friendship of her old neighbor Anna and looks to reconnect with her.
Rachel’s relationships with these characters, along with other characters in Finding Grace, are a manifestation of her journey toward ownership of oneself and understanding about the trials and tribulations of life. One character so far unmentioned is the cat, Prickles. Though most of Prickles interaction in the book is passive and curated as part of the background, Prickles represents many of the themes presented in the book. When Rachel first meets Prickles, she questions his name. This creates a dialogue and an eventual discovery about how Grace became the owner of this cat. Prickles is also the first thing Rachel is comfortable with when she begins her job as caretaker. Possibly this is because Rachel does not feel she has to impress on or prove anything to the cat, so she is naturally less tense around him compared to the rest of the company visiting Grace along with Grace herself.
About halfway through the novel, the reader is bombarded with a true atrocity as Grace’s neighbor – nicknamed Shouter – abuses Prickles; eventually Shouter ends his game by punting the cat across the lawn. As Rachel desperately looks to manage Grace and save Prickles, it becomes blatantly apparent that bad things happen to good people, and life moves on regardless of these happenings. Though there is justice in Shouter’s deed as he is later arrested, Prickles is still gravely injured and requires many weeks of recovery.
Finding Grace is a novel that outlines humanism at its finest. In its sarcastic and colloquial writing, the reader is reminded of many lessons that are learned during late adolescence and beyond. Rachel’s journey of self-actualization is one of triumphs and missteps, not unlike most teens’. In Finding Grace, we do indeed find Grace, but if one takes a step back, one may also find themselves.
Brugman, Alyssa. Finding Grace. Crows Nest, Australia, Allen Unwin, 2001.