Review: Fallen Grace

Fallen Grace by Mary Hooper. Bloomsbury. 2011. Reviewed from ARC from ALA.

The Plot: London, 1861. Grace and Lily Parkes, two teenaged orphans, have little and keep losing the little they have. Despite it all — despite the poverty, the hunger, the work — Grace and Lily have each other. The bond between the sisters is strong and loving, even though Grace, the  younger sister at 15, has to take care of the older Lily. Another harsh blow is delivered when Grace delivers a stillborn child.

While at Brookwood Cemetery to bury the child, Grace has two chance encounters. Neither, at first, seems very significant. Things are happening, though, things about which Grace and Lily are unaware. Chance encounters will lead to a future different than anything Grace ever dreamed. 

The Good: Writing the plot part of Fallen Grace was challenging, because it sounded so doom and gloom! Poverty and orphans and a stillborn child. Stolen shoes and stolen identities.

But it’s NOT doom and gloom! It’s the opposite of doom and gloom! The bond between Grace and Lily is loving and kind. No matter what happens to them, no matter what possessions they pawn or lose, no matter the trials and tribulations that are heaped upon them, their bond remains strong. Each roadblock is one that Grace matter-of-factly confronts. Abused in the workhouse? Leave, find a place to live, find a way to make money. No money for rent? Figure out what can be pawned. Feeling down? Use bits of scrap newspapers as inspiration to weave stories to entertain your sister. Grace does not deny how dire their situation gets, but she has determination and drive.  Grace also has standards; she’d rather deal with the daily uncertainty of the Seven Dials than the guaranteed food and shelter of the training center, because the training center came with a man who felt he was entitled to the young girls.

Worried about how things will end for the Parkes sisters? Never fear. The book promises “a great fraud has been perpetrated on young Grace and her sister, and they are the secret recipients of a most unusual legacy-if only they can find the means to claim it. Mary Hooper’s latest offers Dickensian social commentary, as well as malicious fraud, mysterious secrets, and a riveting read.” By page 70, the reader knows just what that legacy is, even though it will take the rest of the book for Grace to discover it. Another clue as to what secrets float around Grace comes even sooner.

Fallen Grace is an interesting way to tell a story — the reader knows (or is given enough clues to suspect) many things before Grace does. As the name implies, Fallen Grace is primarily Grace’s story but some chapters are about Lily or others, sharing with the reader what Grace does not know or suspect. The suspense and mystery are not about “what is the fraud? What is the secret legacy? Why is it a secret?” The suspense is, when will Grace figure it out? Will it be too late? In books like Fallen Grace, lost heiresses are discovered, there are reversals of fortune and coincidence, hard work is rewarded and villains punished, so why should the author and reader pretend otherwise? Why not reveal some of it to reader from the start?

This brings another great aspect of Fallen Grace; the book design. Scattered through are newspaper announcements, business cards, and other things that at first appear to just provide general information about 1861 London but turn out to be adding not just depth, but also clues and insight into the lives of Grace and Lily and those around them.

Hooper uses some fascinating history – that of the funeral industry in Victorian times. Grace becomes a mute, a professional mourner. Fallen Grace is also an intimate look at the working-class poverty of the 1860s. How would a young woman, with no relatives, no money, no skills survive alone? How do people and families get by?


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