In a nameless city by the sea, there lived a family of great power. The townspeople, jealous of the family's prosperity and perplexed by far too many coincidences for good taste or bad luck, condemned the family as witches. How else could they explain the strange influence the family exerted over the land?
One day, a quiet young woman moved into town with her mother. She was poor, and barely had enough to eat at school. But something about this gil intrigued the three children of the witch-family. As the girl and the youngest witch-daughter become close friends, long-kept secrets spill from mouths like blood from backstabbing and sacrifice.
Well, that was the idea, anyway. In reality? The Graces was a confusing, muddled, uneven morass of purple prose and flat characters that left me profoundly disappointed. But that cover, though! Oh!
Let's start with the basics. When I read a book, I need a firm sense of place. I need atmosphere. From certain phrases and the main character's daily lunch of beans on toast, I finally deduced that The Graces is set somewhere in the UK. On a coast where people surf and act like California surfer dudes. A place where people eat biscuits but are in different grades, not years or forms. In language, they are the most American Brits I've ever read, and it created a gnawing sense of wrongness and indecision. If the author can't commit to a concrete setting, I can't keep myself in the story. I fall out of it, wondering where I am and why I'm there in the first place.
And yet The Graces managed to get its claws in me and drag me over a rutted, bumpy plot that depended on me believing that the narrator was an unreliable narrator (which I disagree with; more on that later) and that the ending was purposeful and not the result of writing oneself into a corner. I was, like a dumb fish, hooked.
A good unreliable narrator doesn't flat-out say, "And I lied about that." That's not unreliability, that's just lying. A person can reliably lie and tell a story of lies--we know that they are all lies because it's already been spelled out for us as readers. We aren't surprised by the ending because we know that there were lies all along, so we mentally prepare ourselves to believe nothing. A properly done unreliable narrator deceives the reader by omitting lies, by glossing over layers of truth or lie and pretending that they don't exist.
The narrator for The Graces never tells us her real name--she does rename herself with her "true name," River, to better adopt her BFF-with-a-witch-maybe persona. So, for this review, she will be River. To set the mood, maybe I should chalk out some pentagrams and light some candles and wave some incense around.
Ever since her father disappeared in the night, River has felt entirely detatched. Her mother is completely (and conveniently) dissociated from her daughter's life. The family is at times super poor, with River only having beans on toast to eat for lunch, and some days nothing at all, but they live in a duplex. Unless that's UK code for "subsidized housing," I would think that her mum would be able to afford more than beans and toast. After moving to a new town, River instantly latches on to the idea of becoming part of the inner circle of the Grace family, local rich people and supposed witches.
Wait, so why are they witches? This thing happened once at the Grace twins' bithday party where a kid mayyyyybe got cursed ... so everyone in town got together and pronounced them witches. As you do. Maybe this town has ergot poisoning? Collective hallucinations?
But in any case, the Grace children--Thalia, Fenrin (who smells like a "thicker, manlier kind of vanilla"), and Summer--are popular. Beautiful. Rich. And River wants all of those things--but more than anything, she wants witchcraft to be real. She wants to cast spells and make charms and potions and dabble in the dark arts. And hey, it doesn't hurt that Fenrin is super-hot.
Summer, the youngest Grace, is in River's class, and against all odds, she chooses River as her best friend. Soon, River is hanging out at the Grace mansion, drinking wine and watching movies and casting the occasional love spell. But for all their chanting and herbal concoctions and athames casually left on bedside tables, Summer, Fenrin, and Thalia still aren't sure if magic is real or not. River's single-minded determination to become a Grace and discover the truth about magic ends up, naturally, causing A Horrible Tragedy, which is supposed to lead to The Shocking Dénouement, but which actually leaves the reader wondering What The Point Was, Dangit.
The hype had me convinced that there was some sort of manipulation being performed, either by Summer on River or by River on the reader or by some unknown quantity on the Graces. So I went along with the so-called plot, which is really just a string of times that River hung out with the Graces. That's it.
Today I went to Summer's house and we made a love charm in the forest. Who do you think I wished for??? Fenrin is so gorgeous. Can you imagine how jealous the girls at school would be if they saw ME on his arm? Together, we would be unstoppable. But he didn't say ANYTHING even REMOTELY FLIRTY to me today. Ugh, how long does it take for these spells to WORK, anyway? Time to read my book on hexes! TTYL!"Really. That's what it's like. Except with less energy, because River projects this Deep and Mysterious Persona which involves having no personality at all. So, does she succeed in her quest to find witchy fame and sexytimes? Or do the Graces end up eviscerating her in the woods with a goat in order to maintain their eternal youth?
Sadly, neither of those things happen. In fact, when I reached the supposedly shocking bits, I mentally looked around myself wondering, "Wait. Is this where I'm supposed to feel freaked out? Um."
Warning: here there be spoilers, so if you don't want to know the Deep Dark Secrets, maybe ... go binge watch something? But you know you want to read them anyway...
Welcome to the spoilers! Remember how I said that I wasn't impressed with the characterization or the narration of the book? Not only is River dreadfully boring, but she is also TSTL (too stupid to live). The main *secret* of the book revolves around the fact that Fenrin is bi and in love with his childhood friend Wolf. Ergo, he is definitely not in love with River, because he is already in love with Wolf. Honestly, I thought it was extremely obvious that Fenrin was either gay or bi, and despite being hit with GIANT CLUES, River had no clue. What?
So then River kills Wolf by willing him to drown, but later, after she's kidnapped by the Graces and going to be offered as an old-school magic sacrifice (a life for a life) to bring Wolf back, she goes and wills him back to life. No matter that he drowned and after several months would be all bloated and covered in fish nibbles.
Because the other *big twist* is that River has always had magic--she can make bad things happen by wishing it. And at the end there's this weird, "Now they'll see what I'm really made of!" hair flip and flounce off into the sunset. And that's it.
That's it? Well, until the next book, when presumably she'll wreck havoc on England in a supremely uninteresting way.
A final note: I realize that I am reading an advance copy and so wording may change, but I feel like the publisher may have jumped the gun on releasing galleys. This draft felt very rough. Particularly at the beginning of the book, words were omitted from sentences and things just hung together ... oddly. Like this: "Thalia was slim and limber and willowed." Was Thalia doing gymnastics so you could see how flexible she was? "Willowed"? When getting ready to cast a spell, River says: "my guts were churned to sour butter, my insides greasy and strange." I don't think it's possible to churn butter until it is sour; fats go rancid, dairy liquids go sour.
The writing is so purple that it reminded me of Violet Beauregard from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, who ballooned into a berry and literally turned violet. Sentences became these lumbering creatures weighted down under the delusion of poetry or a clever turn of phrase. Save me.
Skip this and wait for the new A.S. King or Stephanie Kuehn. Fine, I haven't read either of them but I know they'll be amazing.
I received an ARC of this title from NetGalley.