The Third Grace by Deb Elkink

THE THIRD GRACE, by Deb Elkink, Greenbrier Book Company, 306 pp., $14.99 ( $6.75 Kindle).

The past casts a long shadow — especially when it points to a woman’s first love.

Her name was Mary Grace until she fell in love with the French exchange student visiting her family’s Nebraska farm. François renamed her “Aglaia” — after the beautiful Third Grace of Greek mythology — and set the seventeen-year-old girl longing for something more than her parents’ simplistic life and faith. Now, fifteen years later, Aglaia works as a costume designer in Denver. Her budding success in the city’s posh arts scene convinces her that she’s left the country bumpkin far behind. But “Mary Grace” has deep roots, as Aglaia learns during a business trip to Paris. Her discovery of sensual notes François jotted into a Bible during that long-ago fling, a silly errand imposed by her mother, and the scheming of her sophisticated mentor conspire to create a thirst in her soul that neither evocative daydreams nor professional success can quench. The Third Grace is a captivating debut novel that will take you on a dual journey across oceans and time — in the footsteps of a woman torn between her rural upbringing and her search for self.

Book Excerpt:

Aglaia returned to the kitchen to refill her mug. Her cat stretched on the couch and yawned, his elfin tongue curling around a lazy “meow” before he bounded over to rub against Aglaia’s housecoat.

She picked him up and he climbed to her shoulder and arranged himself around her neck like a fur collar, his purring idling against her ear as she opened a fishy can of breakfast for him. The tabby was a barn cat, picked up at the SPCA last fall after her former cat lost his four-year battle against city traffic. She’d never buy one of those snooty Siamese or Himalayan breeds, and not just because of the price.

“Here you go, Zephyr,” she said as he sprang to the floor.

What her boss had said about names was true, she thought; they told a lot about a person and even about a pet. The farm crawled with cats when she was young but for some reason the Klassen family never labeled them “Fluffy” or “Snowball,” but talked about them in general terms like “the mama cat” or “that mean tri-color” or “the stray.” Dad liked them around to keep down the rodent population, and Mom always made sure, in the coldest part of winter, to set table scraps outside by the step. On occasion one cat or another made a mad dash into the kitchen, and Joel would always smuggle it into the basement for a quick snuggle.

Aglaia dubbed each of her cats “Zephyr” now—all three cats in turn that she’d owned since they formally named the first one on that perilous summer day in the hayloft.

Mary Grace hunts for the boys for an hour. She calls their names into the machine shop and the bunkhouse, and spies out the pasture but finds Joel’s horse unsaddled, unridden, standing against the backdrop of the thunderheads with its mane blowing. As the storm breaks the hot sky open, she thinks of the loft and scales the splintery ladder with the ease of her tomboy days. She doesn’t hear François picking on his guitar until she’s halfway up the barn wall. She hoists herself through the wooden doorframe into the loft and catches sight of Joel grabbing at the fleeing tomcat.

            “He goes like the wind!” Joel complains.

             She hasn’t climbed that ladder for over a year, and when she finds them there, it strikes her again what a haven the place is—the musty perfume of the bales, the daylight jabbing ghostly fingers through gaps in the shingles.

            François is smoking something that smells sweeter than the hay.

            “What are you doing?” She’s aghast that Joel hasn’t put a stop to it, if only because Dad’s been adamant about their never lighting matches in this firetrap. But more, she’s thrilled at the danger of what she’s walked into. She looks from François to Joel, and gets the impression the two have had words about it and François has won.

But she doesn’t leave the barn—she doesn’t run to tattle. How can she? François’s charcoal eyes smile away her indignation.

            “You’ve come here to sing with me?” François asks as he strums a chord. “Or maybe to smoke with me?” He winks at her again. “Joel won’t try, but you will, non?”

He takes the joint from his lips and raises it to hers, daring her while Joel watches with distress in his eyes. She remembers the pact they made, but she takes the slightest puff anyway and starts coughing. She’s never even smoked a cigarette, never mind a joint. Joel grits his teeth but François smiles, and so she takes a second draw—this time deeper. She knows she should leave now, but hail as hard as Pharaoh’s heart begins a staccato on the barn roof.

The tomcat reappears to skulk near François, curls up against him without invitation, then snags at Joel when he reaches to pet him. “Let’s name him Zephyr,” François says, “for the west wind.”

François makes her feel like a Zephyr, nervous and needy and a little naughty all at once.

***************

 

Aglaia’s fingers wrapped around the demitasse from which she had taken two delectable sips. She hated to polish it off with a final gulp but Lou, watching her from across the table, had already finished hers. Aglaia wanted to sit here forever.

The streets of Paris fulfilled her every expectation. This moment of lounging at her first sidewalk café was a condensation of all of her long-held expectations—the pungent coffee and chocolate-drizzled pastry, the wafting perfume of passers-by, the music pulled from a violin by a gypsy-busker in the shade of the boulevard’s trees. Ignoring Lou’s surveillance, she dipped into her bag to hook out her sketchpad and, with a few deft strokes of her graphite, captured the swing of the violinist’s skirt, the strain at the sleeve seam as the girl propelled her bow across willing strings.

***************

 

Aglaia turned the page to draft another hasty contour of the musician. It was Tuesday morning, eighteen hours since landing, and the first time Aglaia had consciously absorbed the aura of the city. She was in a daze upon arrival at the airport yesterday and almost nodded off in the cab ride to the Hôtel du Caillou, where she and Lou dropped off their baggage, freshened up, and set out on a walking tour of the Montmartre neighborhood stretched prostrate below the great white basilica of Sacré-Coeur. They read the grave markers of famous poets as they took a shortcut through a cemetery. They raced through a Monet show, Lou stopping long enough to instruct her on the Impressionist’s conveyance of light, although she had no use for the portrait artists in the square who called to them for a sitting. They spotted the red windmill of the Moulin Rouge from a distance as they marched along the avenues till Aglaia’s ankle could take no more. She didn’t get a chance to practice her French, since Lou was so quick to speak—to purchase entrance tickets to a gallery or to order a bottle of vin blanc. And she didn’t get a chance to check out a Paris phone book either, Lou yanking her past at least two booths. The day’s heat was unbearable, and after an early supper at an elegant restaurant, Aglaia fell into a deep sleep on her first night in the hotel.

So now she sat beneath the red awning of a Parisian café on a sunny morning with her sketchpad, and she only half listened as Lou began to outline their sightseeing agenda without once asking for her input. For the moment, Aglaia didn’t care. She was immersing herself in the whole luxurious encounter—the tastes and scents and sounds—like she might slide into her bath after a long day of work.

***************

 

Paper crackling, Lou unfolded the Métro map, subway being the preferred mode of transportation around Paris for tourists and residents alike. She said, “Well, come on. Let’s be intentional about our day.” She had all their options for the entire stay figured out, with time set aside for her own research at the university and for Aglaia’s appointment tomorrow morning at the costume museum. Relieved to be off the subject of François, Aglaia became more animated with every turn of the Fodor’s page.

Lou went on about the parks and galleries and bridges. “We’ll fly by the Opéra Garnier, make reservations for a boat trip down the Seine, and take in the Rodin museum.” Lou ran her fingertip along their intended path on the map. “I’ll show you Victor Hugo’s setting for The Hunchback of Notre Dame, where the movie was filmed, and then we’ll stop for some cherry sorbet from Berthillon.”

***************

Aglaia pitched into tourist mode for the rest of the day. She admired the architecture, nodded along to Lou’s overview of French rationalism, and shuddered through a demonstration of a guillotine. She gasped at the fiendish ferocity of the 384 masks carved on the oldest bridge in the city, glaring down at her from their height like some ill-tempered gods, and she recognized another bridge—when Lou pointed it out to her—that Marlon Brando stood upon in the Last Tango in Paris. She trudged through several cathedrals to appreciate their historic significance and even put up with a lecture on Lou’s view about the socio-cultural impact of Joan of Arc upon the women of late mediaeval France.

But they didn’t pause to taste the crêpes sizzling on a curbside griddle, drenched in butter and folded up in a cone of waxed paper but discounted by Lou as peasant fare. They didn’t inspect the bolts of lace stacked up on a vendor’s table in the flea market. And they dashed past the dead chickens that hung from their twine-wrapped claws beneath canopies blowing in the wind, and brown blocks of Marseillaise soap, and round goat cheeses powdered with ash. When they did sit for a few minutes on a park bench, shaded from the burning sun, to rest Aglaia’s ankle and watch a cluster of middle-aged men who played pétanque on the grass, Lou couldn’t explain to her the rules of the game.

It was almost seven o’clock by the time they got off the Métro at the Saint-Georges stop, and the phone calls to any existing Vivier households still hadn’t been made. As they walked into their hotel, Lou asked the concierge to book a table at a nearby seafood restaurant.

“It’s superb, Aglaia. Bouillabaisse as it was meant to be supped and Coquilles Saint-Jacques that trumps any you’ve eaten at home.” Aglaia hadn’t ever eaten either dish at home, and she was intimidated by her culinary ignorance—though she could bet Lou had never tasted really superb Kjielkje noodles rolled out, boiled, and fried in bacon drippings by an old Mennonite cook. She felt herself grin at that, and salivate just a little.

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