A Subtle Grace, by Ellen Gable, tells the story of Kathleen O’Donovan, the 19-year-old eldest daughter of a wealthy Irish Catholic family in late Victorian era Philadelphia.
In many ways, the novel follows the conventions of a romance story, with Kathleen torn between two suitors, one dashing and romantic with a dangerous side, the other kind and humble but not without a few skeletons in his closet. But the author takes the story beyond a simple romance novel and introduces a serious contrast between pure Christian love and power-hungry lust.
Other plotlines involving Kathleen’s siblings make this book more a family saga than a simple love story as well. Each of the three oldest children in the O’Donovan family have to deal with the demands of Christian morality and marriage, and each one faces the consequences of infidelity and not reserving intimacy for marriage in different ways.
This is a well-written, fast-paced novel that I enjoyed reading and would highly recommend to anyone who enjoys historical fiction.
However, I did question one of the minor plotlines–the mixed race heritage of one of Kathleen’s suitors, Dr. Luke Peterson. Dr. Peterson’s mother was a Lenape-Delaware Indian, yet Peterson keeps his race a secret for fear of prejudice. He’s able to do this because he looks just like his Anglo father, down to the blond hair.
This scenario seemed implausible to me (and genetically unlikely), and it was not necessary to the story, except perhaps to emphasize the empathy Dr. Peterson feels with people who are outcasts.
Also, while it was very interesting to see how Gable dealt with the various issues of morality in a 19th-century context, the number of moral issues presented was a bit overwhelming. Characters in this book dealt with prostitution, death from abortion, attempted rape, physical assault, illegitimacy, teen sex, repressed childhood memories, and two tragic childhood deaths. At one point I thought, all we need now is a closeted gay character and this book will have covered all the bases! (But that didn’t happen. 🙂 )
So, I would recommend this book to readers ages mature teen and up. It’s been a best-seller in the “Religious Drama” category on Amazon, and I guarantee it will keep you on the edge of your seat!
Thank you to the author for the complimentary copy provided in exchange for this review.