“An Unexpected Grace,” by Kristin von Kreisler. Kensington Books. $15.
The talented Bainbridge Island author, who has previously focused on nonfiction, makes a smooth transition here into fiction with a story that serves up psychological salve for all involved – the title’s namesake Grace, a golden retriever, and two highly different characters in her life, Lila Elliot and Adam Spencer.
Grace and Lila are both damaged personalities – the former being rescued by Adam after being mistreated and with little or no socialization and the latter finding herself a victim in a San Francisco public-relations company office shooting where seven died and three were wounded by a janitor.
Adam, however, Grace’s rescuer and Lila’s acquaintance via a friend Cristina, is driven to find a permanent home with a positive setting for Grace, but is forced to house her temporarily with Cristina, who soon after moves to the East Coast short term to follow her husband’s work and asks Lila, to house sit for six months. She agrees, but Grace comes with the package, until Adam is able to rehome her, producing plenty of emotional fireworks.
Von Kreisler is at her best with colorful metaphors throughout this striking adventure that exudes a combustible feel around every corner. As the story unfolds you find yourself rooting for Grace and losing patience with Lila, who is admittedly not a “dog person,” after a frightening childhood encounter with one.
Early on, the author captures Alice’s woebegone look: “Anyone can tell this dog had seen hard times. Her odometer had too many miles on it. She looked as worn as a tennis ball that had lost its fuzz.”
Under the same roof, Lila, an artist, and Grace encounter an emotionally bumpy ride day after day, both requiring time and space and neither wanting to bond with the other too quickly despite Adam’s interactions. But time has a tendency to heal wounds of the two characters deeply in need of the other, despite one’s begrudging attitude.
In that context, von Kreisler writes: “As the neediness in Grace’s whimpers overwhelmed her, Lila identified with the vulnerability and anguish.”
Deftly balanced between frustration and eventual fascination, Lila and Grace grow on you as the former’s attitudes change – after she takes Grace to a nearby shelter for adoption then backs out – and later finds herself overcome with concern when the dog is injured and requires immediate veterinary treatment.
Von Kreisler’s lively narrative, detailed descriptions and engaging scenarios, chiefly centering on Lila and Grace, are balanced by the engaging and introspective Adam who levels the playing field for the edgy Lila. Recognizing both the dog and the woman suffered from a “random act of fate,” Adam attempts to put things in a sobering perspective for Lila, obsessed with unearthing the rationale behind shooter Yuri Markov’s rampage in her office.
Adam is on the periphery through much of the story, but gradually emerges into a key figure as the plot heads for a sugary, warm “family-type” conclusion.
Von Kreisler’s earthy delivery creates a landscape that’s a natural metaphor for the humbling struggles between trust and torment. While two of the key figures approach from polarized positions, a soulful dog serves as a sobering inspiration and comfort pillow for both – and a poignant relief valve for the reader.