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Well, not that lazy; I have done a full 900 words for Vector, after all. But rather than think up another 900 for here, I'm going to do that thing of borrowing other peoples' words and commenting on them instead. It's what blogs were made for, after all, right?
No matter how dark the tapestry God weaves for us, there's always a thread of grace.
Now, you might ask what a historical novel--the story of Jewish refugees in Northern Italy in the last years of World War II--is doing in Vector at all. The answer is that it gets in because it's by Mary Doria Russell, whose first novel The Sparrow was one of the most highly-praised sf novels of the 1990s (and a book of some personal significance). The books share a sort of fundamental moral honesty--a willingness to look at both the very good and the very bad in humanity; to take what you might expect to be simple situations and make them complex; to ask questions, in the case of A Thread of Grace, about the limits of human kindness. The prologue (which is actually fairly atypical of the book) is excerpted here.

And now I'll hand over to Laura Miller at Salon:
From this description, or to anyone familiar with Russell's previous novel, "The Sparrow" -- the story of a Jesuit mission to another planet -- "A Thread of Grace" might sound like a philosophical novel in which the characters think a lot about right, wrong and the nature of faith. Instead, the book is a veritable symphony of action, deploying about a dozen characters (all solidly delineated), in a nonstop string of escapes, ambushes, ruses, sabotages, sorties, disguises, coded communications and rescues.
This is true--A Thread of Grace is a much broader novel, with a much larger cast, even warranting a dramatis personae list--but it doesn't mean the book sacrifices depth. It's just that these are characters who (through necessity, as much as anything else) demonstrate their morals with deeds more than words.

Malena Watrous in the San Francisco Chronicle relates an interesting anecdote:
According to Russell, there's an Italian saying that goes: "'If you can help, you must help.'' And many of those who help in this novel pay the price. Objecting to the insinuation of movies like "Life is Beautiful" that the plucky and courageous were more likely to survive the Holocaust, Russell wanted to show what so many actual survivors insist: that it was luck, not heroism, that got them through the war. So she had her son flip a coin to determine the fate of each character.
I didn't read this until after I'd finished the book, but it rings true. There's a real sense of peril in the novel's second half; nobody is safe.

Stevie Davies in The Guardian:
The most moving characters are 14-year-old Claudette Blum and her Jewish scholar-father, Albert, crossing the Alps, she in an adolescent tantrum, he bottling his ire at her antics. The tragicomic pair are treated with tender wit. Russell's simple style is able to morph into a language of intimacy, comedy, punchy action, and sheer sublimity. Like the bare parataxis of the Old Testament, giving the sense that things "came to pass", unaccountably but incontrovertibly, this style lends dignity to ordinariness.
I agree with this; Claudette's story is the most emotionally fullsome of all the arcs in the book, and contains uplifting, heartwarming moments as well as tragedy. I think that overall, however, Renzo Leoni, who initially seems to be a simply drawn roguish hero, eventually acquires greater depth than any of the other characters.

I liked this book a great deal, although not quite as much as The Sparrow. I think at least part of the reason for that is that A Thread of Grace stands firmly in the shadow of history. The Sparrow, though immensely moving, was in some ways a fairly abstract moral debate--there was no exact historical precedent, but many parallels. For this novel, on the other hand, it's impossible to ignore the specifics of the context, and it's hard, at least for me, to separate the sobering effect that has from the internal successes of the novel. Mind you, perhaps that's how it should be.
 
 
 
 
 
 
I also found the coin-flip anecdote interesting, and it did explain some of my "What? They died?" reactions to portions of the novel. And it worked. Plot-pointless death usually feels sloppy: I got stuck, so I killed off that character. But in historical context, it makes sense; and it shifts the book out of some of a reader's usual securities. Here, protagonist is no guarantee of survival. I like that.