“Book Review: Everything That Came Before Grace”
Reviewed by Tucker Lieberman
A tender story of a father managing his secret desire for an old flame
Bill See’s novel, Everything That Came Before Grace: A Father-Daughter Story, tackles the high-octane emotions of a man’s most important relationships. The fictional narrator is deeply committed to two women in his life, and his memories sweep across two decades with gently confessional details. It is a novel of forgiveness and hope.
When Benjamin enters college, he has instant chemistry with a classmate, Anna. They remain a serious item throughout their college years. As graduation approaches, however, Anna suddenly pulls away and leaves Benjamin (who she perceives as lacking ambition) for his best friend, Keith (who, like her, is headed to law school).
Benjamin’s attempt at a rebound relationship has unexpected consequences. A young woman, unexpectedly pregnant with his child, bears the child and soon afterward dies in an accident. Benjamin is left to parent his infant daughter. He resolves to be a good father especially because his own father was absent and his mother died while being aggressively treated for mental illness. He is so busy parenting that he never makes time to find a lover. But he never forgets his passion for his college girlfriend, Anna.
The story picks up a decade later when Anna and Keith invite Benjamin to their wedding, hoping to let bygones be bygones. Benjamin is still pained by their betrayal, but he resumes a relationship with the couple in hopes of better days. He soon discovers, though, that Anna has never abandoned her feelings for him either.
The novel tracks the evolution of the adult relationship between Benjamin and Anna, driven as it is by sexual tension, and also explores the development of Benjamin’s meaningful connection with his daughter, Sophia, as she wades through the angst of her teens.
The convincing chemistry between Benjamin and Anna—both in the original excitement of their college years and in their rekindled encounters—drives the story. They connect over music and movies, and their interactions are spontaneous and natural. The father-daughter dialogue is also persuasive. Sophia has a real teenager’s way of speaking to her father: all emotive assertiveness and, from a grownup’s perspective, more hotheadedness than logic.
Benjamin’s taste for classic romantic pop songs is a unique feature of this love story. “I sit there just stunned,” he says of his favorite songs, “because I can’t understand how they even exist, and all I can say is, ‘Thank God’ they do.” In the dedication, the author describes his interest in writing fiction about how one might use “the healing powers of music” to manage mental illness, and he shares recommendations generously in the form of playlists that appear throughout the story. There is also a complete playlist provided at the end of the book. The primary narrative is strong enough to hold our attention without this added bonus, but it sure does add a genuine flair to an already strong novel.
It might seem a little hard to believe that the desire between Benjamin and Anna could have survived a decade-long hiatus, but here we are. The strength of this current relationship carries with it the previous years of therapy, anti-depressants, and an unspoken regret of not reaching out. There’s a lot of complexity in their returning relationship, and I’m keen to put the pieces back together and brainstorm whether or not this love is for real.
Benjamin also experiences excessive shame for having embarrassed himself in a police encounter. After he runs a red light and is arrested for a DUI, his teenage daughter uses this as an excuse to demand more emotional distance from her father. Certainly, it is dangerous and unethical to drive drunk, but since there was no collision and no one was injured, it seems odd that this single incident would endanger this father-daughter bond in the way that it does. While the two of them seem to perceive this as the real cause of their partial rupture rather than as a mere pretext for it, a reader might nevertheless see that Sophia’s need for distance could just be an inevitable part of her growing up.
Overall, Everything That Came Before Grace is a lighthearted, tender novel that worked its magic on me. It’s about seizing the perfect moments to maintain the love of the relationships that matter to you most. It’s about respecting boundaries and letting people change because, here, in this novel, joy and sadness blend together in an ever-expanding playlist.
Category: General Fiction / Family Life
Print Length: 265 pages
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