It’s possibly way too early to start picking candidates for favourite books of 2023 – I’m still deliberating over 2022 – but I think this book is certainly going to be in contention. Grace is one of those characters that you fantasise about having cocktails with and you already know you’d have the best time. Grace is stuck in traffic, it’s a boiling hot day and she’s melting. All she wants to do is get to the bakery and pick up the cake for her daughter’s birthday. This is one hell of a birthday cake, not only is it a Love Island cake; it has to say that Grace cares, that she’s sorry, that will show Lotte she loves her and hasn’t given up on their relationship. It’s shaping up to be the day from hell and as Grace sits in a tin can on boiling hot tarmac, something snaps. She decides to get out of the car and walk, leaving her vehicle stranded and pissing off everyone now blocked by a car parked in the middle of a busy road. So, despite the fact her trainers aren’t broken in, she sets off walking towards the bakery and a reunion with Lotte. There are just a few obstacles in the way, but Grace can see the cake and Lotte’s face when she opens the box. As she walks she recounts everything that has happened to bring her to where she is now.
When we first meet Grace she’s living alone, estranged from husband Ben and even from her teenage daughter Lotte. She’s peri-menopausal, wearing trainers her daughter thinks she shouldn’t be wearing at her age and she’s had enough. There’s that sense of the Michael Douglas film Falling Down except when the meltdown comes all she has is a water pistol filled with river water, an embarrassingly tiny Love Island cake and a blister on her heel. Then in flashbacks we can follow Grace all the way back to the start, to when she and Ben met at a competition for polyglots. We also get Ben’s point of view here too, so we see her through his eyes and fall in love with her too. He describes her as looking like Julianne Moore, her hair in a messy up do with the odd pencils tucked in. She suggests that, should she win the prize of a luxury hotel break in Cornwall, they should go together. It’s a crazy suggestion, but deep down, he really wants to go with this incredible woman. Once there, the first thing she does is dive into the sea to save a drowning woman. Ben has never met anyone so free and fearless. Yet on their return four months pass before Grace tracks him down and they meet at the Russian Tea Room. There Grace tells him that he’s going to be a father, he doesn’t have to be in, but can they come to an agreement? Of course Ben is in, he was never out. There love story is touching and yet honest at the same time, it’s not all schmaltzy romance – for example after coming together in Cornwall, Grace’s bed is full of sand. It’s so sad to contrast these early months with the distance between them now, what could possibly have brought them to this place.
I eagerly read about Grace and Lotte’s relationship because I’m a stepmum to a 13 and 17 year old girl. I thought this was beautifully observed, with all the ups and downs of two women at either end of a battle with their hormones. There’s that underlying sadness, a sort of grief for the child who called out for her Mum, who let Mum play Sutherland her hair and would lie in an entwined heap on the sofa watching films. Grace aches to touch her daughter in the same way she did when she was a toddler, but now Lotte watches TV in her bedroom and shrugs off cuddles and intimacy of the physical or emotional life. Pulling away is the normal process of growing up and reminds me of the ABBA song ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’. In the film Mamma Mia, Meryl Streep plays Donna as she helps her daughter get ready for her wedding. In the cinema with my Mum I could see she was emotional and now with my own stepdaughters I can understand it. I just get used to them being a certain age and they’ve grown, with one going to university next year I’m going to be so proud of her, but I’m going to miss her terribly. There’s also a terrible fear, as Grace sees her daughter’s behaviour at school deteriorate and her truant days start to add up, she’s desperate to find out what’s wrong, but Lotte won’t talk. She’s torn between Lotte’s privacy and the need to find the problem and help her daughter, but some mistakes have to be made in order to learn. Grace might have to sit by and watch this mistake unfold and simply be there when it goes wrong. No doubt, she thinks, Grace is involved with a boy and it will pass, but the reality is so much worse.
The truth when it comes is devastating, but feels weirdly like something you’ve known all along. Those interspersed chapters from happier times are a countdown to this moment, a before and after that runs like a fault line through everything that’s happened since. As Grace closes in on Lotte’s party, sweaty, dirty and brandishing her tiny squashed cake, it doesn’t seem enough to overturn everything that’s happened, but of course it isn’t about the cake. This is about everything Grace has done to be here, including the illegal bits. In a day that’s highlighted to Grace how much she has changed, physically and emotionally, her determination to get to Lotte has shown those who love her best that she is still the same kick-ass woman who threw caution to the wind and waded into the sea to save a man she didn’t know from drowning. That tiny glimpse of how amazing Grace Adams is, might just save everything.
Published by Michael Joseph 19th Jan 2023.